When Morality Manufactures Monsters

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Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

On 9 November, journalist Hasan Suroor, a 65-year-old British citizen of Indian origin, was arrested by British Transport Police at Deptford Bridge, London. Suroor was charged with attempting to meet a child after ‘sexually grooming’ her. There are many oddities to the case, primarily that the 14-year-old-girl whom Suroor was allegedly grooming is a fictional character.

A few days before the arrest, an antipaedophilia vigilante group that goes by the name of Unknown TV had several conversations with Suroor over Facebook, posing as a young girl through a fake profile. The two decided to meet in a public place in Chelsea.

The world may never know what was on Suroor’s mind as he arrived to meet an Internet acquaintance that evening: did he expect a 14-year-old British girl who was showing considerable interest in an old man or an adult posing as a minor — because in the conversations, this online enigma sounded so self-aware and mature.

What he did not expect was to be confronted by a group of vigilantes wielding a camera, ‘apprehending’ Suroor for trying to have sex with a child: “Is that Hasan Suroor? Hasan, you’re under arrest under Section…What are you here to do? You’re here to have sex with a child,” said a vigilante as another did the filming.

“Look, I tried to tell her that I’m too old… Just wanted to buy her coffee, that’s all,” said a flustering, defensive Hasan. The video, which is almost 19 minutes in length, was posted on social media soon after. In the aftermath, Suroor was arrested for entertaining the possibility of having a relationship — sexual, emotional or platonic — with a minor.

Suroor is an eminent columnist, a regular contributor to The Guardian, Outlook and The Indian Express. The charge of paedophilia is as serious as it can get. However, the haste to condemn him might blacken out all the grey possibilities.

Citizen vigilantes are members of society who address what the law seemingly cannot. Empowered by modern-day technology of surveillance and outreach — smartphones and social media — the vigilante can perform the function of aiding the law. The many stings done to address corruption and misuse of power across the world are proof of this. However, vigilantism also carries with it the desire of curing the society of a malaise through quick justice and can become a witch-hunt.

The Internet occupies the grey area of our ethics and consciousness. It is the reality of our times, albeit virtual. In some way or the other, our assumptions, evidences and conclusions, are constantly being influenced by our online interactions. We are ourselves on the Internet but also ghosts, constantly negotiating identity — an ‘avatar’ is a culmination of our desires. It has taught us to lie a little and to allow that room for another, especially in a chat with a stranger.

Is the interpretation of intentions expressed online enough to convict someone with a charge as serious as paedophilia? It would have been worthwhile to understand the motivation of the vigilantes and why they zeroed in on Suroor for the sting. When contacted, they first asked, “Do you pay for stories?” A further request for a simple quote got no response. The demand for money for commenting on something ostensibly done as a ‘moral duty’ arouses suspicions.

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