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Saturday, 29 September 2012

One death in Brunswick is too many

There are so many flowers left in tribute to the slain woman because her death deeply offended a lot of people. This was an attack on the entire community so it's a personal matter for so many. Locals who live close enough bring their tributes and lay them on the ground at an impromptu shrine. People with tears in their eyes walk up to the bridal shop on the city street where the CCTV camera captured the last images of the woman when she was alive. The camera points toward the street. There is a man in blue talking to someone then the woman, slim and wearing high heeled shoes and a skirt, walks into the frame and we know he is talking to her. She stops. He hesitates and gestures in her direction. He disappears from the frame. It looks as though she is making a phone call. The images were captured late at night, at almost 2am.

The next morning her worried husband calls the police to report his wife missing. An image appears on the internet. The photograph shows a pretty young woman with red lipstick, long black hair and a smile on her face. She is looking up and to the left as though inspecting the future for interesting possibilities. Soon copies of the photograph will be made and attached to telephone poles in the vicinity of where the woman was last seen. At first the police ask the husband questions and search the house the two occupy. Pictures of the police taking objects away from the house appear in the media, initiating doubts in the minds of members of the public. The missing woman's handbag is located even though police had searched the place where it is found. But the missing woman's phone is not found. Her bank accounts are not accessed. Questions remain.

The video captured in the bridal shop is made public and information from people in the community pours in by way of telephone calls and through social media on the internet. Imagine a map of the country. For each comment in social media there is a flash of light. The map illuminates brightly with thousands of intense flashes as people react to what they see in the media. The lights flare on the map, obscuring its outlines. The map becomes a chalice full of fire as people find a united voice online. There's the man in blue walking up and down the street. The missing woman enters the frame, stops. The man in blue gestures toward her, then walks on. The woman appears to be making a phone call. People at home watch the scene play out over and over again because it has been too long, days in fact, and still there is no sign of the missing woman.

When news of an arrest appears a jolt animates the community like a surge of electricity. Late that night, in the early hours of the morning in fact, news arrives that the missing woman's body has been found outside the city in a shallow grave that had been dug beside a rural road. A hasty court session is set up long before the morning rush hour. There is no bail. The judge acknowledges that this is a serious crime. The time for the next hearing is set. It is to be later that morning, a public hearing.

Members of the public pack the courtroom and there is a cry from the public seats. The cry contains the word for the pupa of the common house fly but in this context the word becomes ugly, threatening. It is because people are profoundly angry. Homicides involving women and people they do not know are extremely rare in this country. The cry is heard at the end of the hearing. The sentiment migrates online to social media where thousands of people congregate to express their fury, to say aloud and in concert that sexual predators are not welcome in this society. They want to live in a country where it is safe for young women to walk home from the pub at night. Fearing a mistrial, the police are forced to warn people in the community to avoid certain utterances. Others who know the law join in with their own warnings. And people listen. We know this because just 12 hours after news of the discovery of the dead woman's body appeared in the public sphere the internet virtually stops talking about her. There are no more comments. The silence after the electronic onslaught is eerie.

Amid the silence, a sullen anger. Millions of people have been offended and not just in this country. In the slain woman's home country where the community is close-knit there is also much anger. It will take a long time for people to come to terms with this event and in that process many words will be produced and read. Exchanging information in this electronically mediated fashion allows people living in geographically distant places to share their feelings. The slain woman's family has asked for privacy. The public meanwhile creates a family of sentiment animated by shared feelings of revulsion and a common interest in ensuring that the streets are safe for all of its members. Public streets are not just in Brunswick, Jill Meagher was just one of many women to decide to walk home alone, and one death like this should be more than enough for caring.

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