In the UK, there have been reports of paedophile hunters, as these ‘vigilantes’ have come to be called, luring people who are supposed to have a potential of child grooming over the Internet, then filming and blackmailing them. Although, there is no evidence that Unknown TV is involved in such transgressions, it raises the possibility of extortion. Ultimately, the question is: where do we draw the line when it comes to groups selecting ‘potential paedophiles’, luring them and then shaming them on social media?
In the past decade or so, many selfstyled paedophile hunting groups have come up in the UK. Most of them say that such vigilantism is needed because the law is not able to tackle the growing menace of child abuse. For instance, a man who goes by the name of Stinton Hunter, a prolific Nuneaton-based antipaedophilia vigilante, was partly inspired by the American reality show To Catch a Predator, which aired in 2004-07. The show employed similar tactics of catching ‘potential child-sex offenders’ through fake profiles.
Such vigilante action has also gone out of hand in many instances. In September 2014, Gary Cleary, 29, committed suicide after vigilante group Letzgo Hunting conducted a similar sting on him. In a recent interview with The Economic Times, a member of Unknown TV commented on Cleary’s death like this: “To be honest, he chose to commit the crime and chose to kill himself.”
The hate comments that Hasan Suroor is already receiving on YouTube, where the sting video has been posted, reveal that Hasan’s cultural profile has also had an impact on public opinion. In the UK, the issue of child grooming — befriending a child, even the family sometimes, to lower the child’s inhibitions for abuse — has been a serious concern, especially after the much discussed Rochdale trafficking case. In 2012, a ring of nine men (eight of Pakistani origin and one Afghan) were convicted of sexual offences against 47 girls.
Ever since, Far Right organisations such as the English Defence League (EDL) have been stoking the absurd stereotype that child sexual exploitation may be inherently connected to Muslim identity. A look at their YouTube videos gives a clear picture of their views on the subject. Massive demonstrations by such conservative groups have only strengthened such stereotypes. Under such circumstances, Suroor has become the classic outsider — an easy target?
However, to paint the ‘outsider’ as the paedophile would only preserve stereotypes. Whenever child abuse in Catholic churches has made it to the news, paedophilia has been recognised as the monster in the closet. Several reports point out that child exploitation is prevalent within the family structure, in the form of incest, which till date remains a topic readily hushed by societies. Many times, child abusers are close to the family. This certainly weakens the case for vigilantism: in the desperation to blame individuals, the larger picture is ignored, as is the seriousness of the issue, besides stoking prejudice.
There are examples from other parts of the world of such vigilante action. In Russia, Occupy Pedophilia began as a movement where potential sex offenders were lured online and then filmed and shamed. However, the group, under the anti-paedophilia banner, now targets young homosexuals and tortures them online. Russia’s ambiguous ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy regarding homosexuality has only served as an encouragement for such groups. Members of the group have said on many occasions that they cannot distinguish between paedophilia and homosexuality.
Such insensitive attitudes reveal that anything that falls outside the heterosexual norm becomes suspect. Therefore, the hysteria around paedophilia has often linked it to homosexuality. In 2009, Indian academician and LGBTQ activist Ashley Tellis wrote an article in The New Indian Express on the need to discuss stereotypes that link paedophilia and homosexuality. The article stressed on a need to talk more about such issues rather than hysterically shutting them out from the public sphere. The write-up was one of the reasons for his removal from IIT Hyderabad, where he was teaching at the time. This only reflects how societies, be they in India, the UK or Russia, want to run away from their demons rather than engage with them.
Sexual abuse of children is obviously a grave issue. Researchers, activists and the law are trying hard to understand its many complex aspects. In this context, the tendency to mete out instant ‘justice’ will be at the cost of understanding and addressing such important issues.