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What does at mean that they’re “one of us”?

datePosted on 06:00, February 16th, 2009 by Anita

Over the last couple of weeks there’ve been a number of threads floating round blogs about what it means when “one of us” does something wrong.

Tane has a great post at The Standard about Bruce Emery’s conviction

Let’s not pretend for a second that Emery would have got off so lightly if he was an unemployed Maori and his victim a middle class Pakeha child, tagger or not.

Tim Selwyn and Deborah express similar sentiments. Being one of us has elicited public sympathy and a reduced sentence, as Deborah wrote

Being a white middle class man is a mitigating factor.

Luddite Journo takes the next step to look at the victim rather than the murderer, in a piece titled You can only be a victim if you own a house she writes

Much of New Zealand identifies with only one person in this case – and it’s not the boy who was killed. 

[As an update, Morgue has a great post in which he suggests that the issue is not the treatment of people-like-us, it’s our treatment of people who are not like us. Emery got appropriate empathy, but we don’t extend it to others]

On similar themes but different incidents Maia writes two posts about why we try to construct rapists as other, and all over the media and blogs people struggle with the way Paula Bennett is one of us but her grandchild’s father is not.

Why is it such a contentious issue? Because is all the bad things in the world are the fault of other people we can sit back and do nothing. This view is well illustrated by Stuart at StuRants:

I’ve now realised there are at least two New Zealands: the one I live in, and the one where all this stuff happens. As yet, the two have never intersected, but until they do (and may God spare me that misfortune!) I refuse to feel bad about it.

This is somewhat at odds with the prevailing politically correct argument that when a child is beaten to death or whatever we are all responsible. Sorry, but no. I can’t think of anything I could have done to cause these things, or anything I can do to stop it happening.

The reality is that people like us kill people, and those killings are just as wrong as the ones that are committed by criminals on benefits in state houses. The domestic violence, rapes and child abuse that is committed by the educated middle class is just as damaging as any other kind. It is only by accepting that these terrible things are done by people like us that we will learn to stop them.

18 Responses to “What does at mean that they’re “one of us”?”

  1. Psycho Milt on February 16th, 2009 at 07:52

    The reality is that people like us kill people, and those killings are just as wrong as the ones that are committed by criminals on benefits in state houses.

    A reality that was accepted by the jury when they found Emery guilty of manslaughter, and by the judge when he sentenced him to jail. I’ve yet to see any convincing explanation of how a sense of outrage is generated by that.

  2. Anita on February 16th, 2009 at 08:07

    Isn’t a big part of the discomfort that people feel that if Emery had been not-one-of-us and his victim had been one-of-us the sentence would be different. Do you not think that’s true?

  3. Pascal's bookie on February 16th, 2009 at 08:12

    It’s not so much the sentence for me, but the verdict. Why wasn’t this murder?

    The picking up of the knife and the chasing some hundreds of meters… that was all in Emery’s control, no one made him do that, and it wasn’t defence once they ran away.

  4. Anita on February 16th, 2009 at 08:17


    That too :)

    I’m not sure when picking up a knife with you and taking actions which lead to a physical confrontation in which you deliberately use the knife and the other person ends up killed by that knife in your hand crosses the line between manslaughter and murder. But I can’t help imagining that if Emery had gang tats and was unemployed a jury might have thought he crossed it.

  5. morgue on February 16th, 2009 at 08:49

    Good overview Anita. I responded to this in a post on my blog: “Anita at Kiwipolitico brings a lot of this together in an interesting post suggesting that Emery received a reduced sentence because he is “one of us”. I think that’s not quite right…”

  6. A Failure of Empathy | from the morgue on February 16th, 2009 at 08:51

    A Failure of Empathy…

    A year ago, Bruce Emery chased down a youth who was tagging his property, stabbed him to death, then went home, concealed the evidence and went to sleep. These facts were not in question. His trial just ended; he was sentenced to four years and three m…

  7. Psycho Milt on February 16th, 2009 at 09:07

    Isn’t a big part of the discomfort that people feel that if Emery had been not-one-of-us and his victim had been one-of-us the sentence would be different. Do you not think that’s true?

    People may feel that, but there’s no evidence that it’s the case. Expected sentence at least 5 years, reduced to 4 years 3 months for entirely legitimate mitigating circumstances. If there’s a case to be made that those mitigating circumstances would be ignored in the case of a young Maori offender, I’ve yet to see it.

    It’s not so much the sentence for me, but the verdict. Why wasn’t this murder?

    Because there’s no evidence of intent to kill. Picking up a weapon when confronting criminals on your property is entirely understandable; chasing after criminals who’ve vandalised your property is also entirely understandable; killing one of them in the resulting confrontation could be either murder or manslaughter, and the investigators have presumably gone with manslaughter because they wouldn’t have a shit’s show of proving intent to kill beyond reasonable doubt.

  8. Anita on February 16th, 2009 at 09:11


    I like your analysis. In some ways it comes down to a questions of markedness; do we treat the unmarked class (people-like-us) better, or do we treat the marked groups worse?

    Both you and Luddite Journo have made the point that the issue is not how we treat Pakeha businesspeople, it’s how we treat everyone else: by blaming them for getting themselves killed (or beaten or raped), and ramping up the punishments when they’re the killer (or beater or rapist).

    While I do like your analysis that we should be looking at how the marked group is treated differently from the unmarked, in the case of the public’s perception of crime aren’t marked and unmarked reversed?

    Hm… I reckon I should put this on both our blogs, but I don’t know if that’s polite :)

  9. Anita on February 16th, 2009 at 09:15

    Psycho Milt,

    Murder doesn’t require intent to kill, here’s the section of the Crimes Act.

  10. Lew on February 16th, 2009 at 09:37


    If there’s a case to be made that those mitigating circumstances would be ignored in the case of a young Maori offender, I’ve yet to see it.

    Well, you can’t prove a negative.

    the investigators have presumably gone with manslaughter because they wouldn’t have a shit’s show of proving intent to kill beyond reasonable doubt.

    Actually, the charge laid by the police was murder – the jury found him not guilty and convicted him of the lesser charge of manslaughter. So it isn’t that they thought they couldn’t convict.


    Thank you. I’ve been uncomfortable with the fact that those normally on the side of mercy are baying for Emery’s blood in a way of which the SST would be proud. Your argument, that everyone should be treated as `us’, rather than treating some people as `them’ is well-taken. It seems a lot of people want Emery to be demoted to `them’ in this case, rather than arguing for everyone else to be treated as he has been. It will come as cold comfort to the Cameron family, but this case does set very high-profile precedent for what constitutes manslaughter, what constitutes appropriate post-killing behaviour, and what constitutes mitigation. That standard can now apply equally to future cases.


  11. morgue on February 16th, 2009 at 09:59


    …in the case of the public’s perception of crime aren’t marked and unmarked reversed?

    I’m not sure I follow this – can you unpack it for me a bit?

  12. morgue on February 16th, 2009 at 10:01

    Lew: thanks. Good points about the precedents, too.

  13. Psycho Milt on February 16th, 2009 at 10:32

    Well, you can’t prove a negative.

    No. But if bloggers are going to call this “institutional racism” or “white privilege,” isn’t there at least some obligation on them to make a case for it?

    Murder doesn’t require intent to kill, here’s the section of the Crimes Act.

    Presumably the prosecutor in opting for a murder charge (thanks Lew) was thinking item (b): If the offender means to cause to the person killed any bodily injury that is known to the offender to be likely to cause death, and is reckless whether death ensues or not:. The jury didn’t find that proven beyond reasonable doubt and so found manslaughter. Not exactly unprecedented, is it?

  14. What would Hayek say on February 16th, 2009 at 11:04

    Lew et al,

    I disagree that this case sets a high precedent.

    Prosecutors generally lay both a charge of murder and manslaughter. It is a two bites at the cherry approach. In itself it indicates uncertainty of evidence (if you where sure you had the evidence beyond reasonable doubt for murder, why do you need a fall back charge?).

    In this case we have a homicide (s 158 Crimes Act) – killing of a person directly or indirectly, it is a culpable homicide (s 160) – killing by an unlawful act, culpable homicide is either murder or manslaughter.

    With regards to s167 to sustain the charge of murder the prosecutor needs to prove that: the offender meaned to cause the death of the person, means to cause the person killed any bodily injury that is known to the offender to be likely to cause death or is reckless whether death ensues or not, there it two more subsections dealing with the instances of trying to causes death to someone else but having a secondary person killed and as a result of some other unlawful action but where such death was likely to cause death.

    Psycho Milt whilst probably appreviating was pointing out that the intent part of the murder charge was not proven. There reason Psycho provides sets out quite well the possible reasoning for a not guilty finding. Therefore the case falls back to manslaughter.

    Sentencing is based on precedent which looks to other cases for manslaughter as guidance. There is some scope for judicial descretion, however if the sentence is not in line it can be appealed by the Crown.

    There alraedy is significant precedent and sentencing reflects that precedent. Each cse will always depend onteh particular circumstances that effect intent, any defences e.g. self defence, provocation, and any mitigating circumstances.

    Reflecting on the wider story which relates to the recent post by Pablo – are we really a divided society and more than we have been historically? We have a more fearful society which may not reflect actual risks we face. In fact i’m willing to argue we live in a less risky world now than we ever have yet someone are paralysising ourselves with greater worries.

    This is not to say bad things don’t happen, they do, but are our worries a reflection on how much we have come to believe that everything is/should be safe, rather than there is some risk and as such we should have more personal caution. As a result when an instance like this case occurs the populace self identifies and says gosh that could be me/my child/my mother,father,daughter,son,uncle,aunt,cousin,friend. In effect we are bought back to the reality of risk.

    Personally I see the world more optimistically, things are getting better and the evidence supports this view, but there is always risk so we should always take each day as something special

  15. morgue on February 16th, 2009 at 12:49

    Anita – forgot to respond to this little bit

    Hm… I reckon I should put this on both our blogs, but I don’t know if that’s polite :)

    I think it’s probably not impolite in a general sense, and it’s definitely not impolite in the specific case of my blog!

    [Also – your comment got held for moderation by my crazy spam filter, now is published.]

  16. Another Bruce Emery? | No Right Turn on February 16th, 2009 at 13:29

    Another Bruce Emery?…

    Over the weekend the blogosphere has seen a number of excellent posts on child-killer Bruce Emery’s sentencing. Meanwhile, New Zealand saw another Emery-style incident. In New Plymouth, a group of teenagers engaged in the age-old prank of ringing some…

  17. BeShakey on February 16th, 2009 at 16:13

    Great post. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, although from a slightly different angle.

    It seems to me that by defining those who commit serious crimes as ‘evil’ and therefore’one of us’ we eliminate the need to do anything about it (I think others touched on this). For instance, Anotonie Dixon was ‘evil’ therefore the appropriate response is to punish him severely. This allows us to ignore his childhood (for those unfamiliar a quick google will bring up the gruesome details). Obviously in Dixons case it’s too late to do anything about this, but recognising the importance of it makes it more reasonable to invest heavily in trying to improve the lot of sections of society. In terms of reducing crime this would be a much more fruitful response than simply increasing punitiveness (although it wouldn’t deliver results for 10+ years). The problem is that it requires recognising that many (although perhaps not all) of those that committ heinous crimes aren’t fundamentally different to us in terms of character, but simply in terms of background.

  18. […] at Kiwipolitico: What does it mean that they’re “one of us”? Luddite Journo: You can only be a victim if you own a house Tane at The Standard: Institutional […]

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