Hard News by Russell Brown


About Arie

Most of us understand that Michael Laws, through his various media platforms, is unlikely to disappoint our lowest expectations. Indeed, a number of people predicted his response to the very incident which is the subject of this post. He will reliably target the vulnerable. He will say things that make the gutter look good.

In this case, last week Laws took a call from Lee, the father of a 14 year-old autistic boy, who wanted to talked about the case of Arie Smith, the young Asperger man who became "the face of looting" after being arrested when he was caught taking a light-fitting and two bulbs from an abandoned house in Christchurch. He apparently has an obsession with light fittings.

Lee said:

"But I'll tell you one thing I know -- my boy he knows exactly what's right and wrong … a disability like that it can't be used as a fallback. If you're breaking the law you can say I had a disability, etcetera, etcetera. Disablity ot not, he guy's 25 years old, I'm sure he understands what's right and wrong, whether or not it's like an obsessive compulsive disorder. I mean like, hey .."

Laws interjected.

"If that's the argument, then you'd excuse paedophiles, wouldn't you, on the basis of they've got an obsessive compulsive disorder to have sex with small children."

Yes. He did. Michael Laws directly compared autistic people to paedophiles.

"Exactly," responded Lee. "You've got it in one there, Michael. The thing is, I feel the guy, because of his disability, he should not be put in a mainstream prison for sure. What should be done with him is definitely keep him in custody. Do not let the guy out. I mean, the guy's 25 years old. If he's been going around before the earthquake pinching light bulbs and fittings from shops and all the rest of it, then he's criminal. So he needs to be dealt with as accordingly, you know what I mean?

"I don't think that people can use a disability like Aspergers or autism because there are some many different degrees on the spectrum. I've only had my son in my custody for four years, and I'm still learning. It's a tough thing …"

Yes, it is. And it's sad that Lee can't reconcile his recognition of the spectrum of flavours in which autism comes with some understanding of the key factor here: that someone whose brain is profoundly differently wired to most people's might see things profoundly differently than most people.

My boys don't have an obsession with light-fittings. Or teapots. Or trains. Their strong interests -- and it's not "obsessive compulsive disorder" and anyone who uses that phrase in this context is basically emitting psychobabble -- are quite socially acceptable. Movies, video games. They do, like Lee's child, know right from wrong: frequently to an extent that would put the rest of us to shame.

But I understand that they don't experience the world like I do. In Arie's case, it's not even that illogical. A light-fitting in a ruined house is basically headed for landfill.

And it's not as if Arie's foster family hasn't clearly and unequivocally acknowledged that what he did was wrong and that he must face the consequences. But the idea that he should "not let out" of prison, where he was presumably traumatised and confused? Really? In case he took another fucking light fitting in a city with much, much more than that to worry about?

In the closing minute of the same show, Laws took another cheap shot, noting "the email of the day" from Johnny, who says "'Michael: Asperger Syndrome. This is how Hotchin and Petrovic, obsessive compulsion with other peoples' money and property can be explained, and forgiven'.

"Yeess ... where's Asperger's when you really need it, eh? I wish I'd had that exuse for many of the things that I did. I'm sure I must be a minor sufferer of some sort of autism ... could be a major autism, Jeremy, you're actually right. Explains so much, you see? I should use it next time I'm in front of the Broadcasting Standards Authority."

No, Michael, you're not autistic. You're just a piece of shit.

But that isn't actually the worst thing. I'll quote Chris Trotter at some length, because he puts it well:

Now, cast your mind back to the media coverage of the young man who was brought before a Christchurch court and charged with looting light-fittings. Anyone looking at the television footage could tell that the accused had been severely beaten. His eyes and mouth were badly swollen and his face covered with cuts and bruises. But to my knowledge not a single journalist commented on this obvious fact. Nor did I hear anyone make reference to the obvious collusion between the Police, the Court and the news media which transformed the accused’s appearance before the judge into a full-scale media event.

Presumably, the journalists present saw this carefully organised "perp walk" as a chance to build "national cohesion" around the most suitable means of deterring looting in Christchurch. Accordingly, each of them toed the "baseline of common experience" – in this case our common revulsion at looting in the midst of tragedy.

But the media was wrong about that young man. He turned out to be less of a looter than he was a mentally disabled human-being utterly unequal to the task of defending himself against either physical assault or the charges brought against him. It’s doubtful he was even capable of grasping the extreme seriousness of his situation.

Journalists less concerned with building "national cohesion" and keeping within the bounds of society’s "common experience" would have questioned the authorities, not colluded with them. They would have tried to find out who beat the boy. Was it the Police? The Army? Or was he left to the tender mercies of his cell-mates?

When they learned that the items he’d stolen were light-fittings, they would have immediately known that they weren’t dealing with a case of looting, but with something entirely different. (Who risks imprisonment for light-fittings?!)

But, because the journalists present at the court decided to act in our name, rather than in the name of what Lew dismisses as "a desiccated, dispassionate view of the Canterbury quake", we were all tainted by the cruelty and injustice meted out to a sad autistic boy.

In that makeshift courthouse, the assembled journalists’ "first rough draft of history" was a lie.

I can't find the video, but the photo with this story is all you really need to see. In truth, some journalists did mention Arie's condition in passing, but no one saw fit to ask questions. The police brutally beat a young man who we now know to be disabled. No one made an issue of it. We were all too consumed by our own emotions about looters to bother with that.

And in that light, it seems proper to ask this question: who's sick, really?


PS: Readers have been understandably cautious about attributing Arie's injuries to an assault by police officers, but in a comment in the discussion for this post, a friend of the family writes that "His foster sister spoke to Arie and Arie confirmed that it was the police that beat him."

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