From Volume 5 Number 5 (Print edition only)

CHRISTCHURCH: Michael Laws, the New Zealand politician, broadcaster and columnist, has stirred up a storm with remarks he made about the Arie Smith-Voorkamp case.
            “In all disasters, the rubble attracts rats ... There are always ferals prepared to feed on the misery of others,” Laws declared. “When these rodents are eventually apprehended and exposed to the light, we are always amazed by how non-descript and petty they seem. As was the case with Arie Smith - Cornelius Arie Smith-Voorkamp to give him his full title - the 25-year-old arrested for looting a damaged house days after the Canterbury tragedy.”  Canterbury is the devastated district of Christchurch.
            In response, one irate commentator wrote in a blog: “Laws includes Smith, a 25-year-old who has Asperger’s syndrome, among the rats, rodents and  ‘ferals, prepared to feed on the misery of others’ ...  In fact, the published photos accentuated such feral features – an unusual angularity offset by a blackened eye and the demeanour of one who spends much of his life in the darkness. Overnight, Arie Smith became the face of looting, and a figure of public contempt.”
            Another commentator wrote that Laws’ comments were “worthy of Joseph Mengele” [the infamous Nazi death camp doctor].  “There is no evidence of any sort to support the suggestion that Mr Smith ‘spends much of his life in the darkness.’ ‘Feral’ is among Mr Laws’ favourite words to describe his fellow man. It means: ‘Of, pertaining to, or resembling a wild animal, savage, fierce, brutal; untamed, uncultivated; ultimately descended from individuals which escaped from captivity or domestication; born of such an animal in the wild.’
            “Smith’s behaviour is entirely consistent with Asperger’s syndrome,” the blogger continued. “Obsession with particular objects, whether vacuum cleaners or light fittings, as in this case, is commonplace among Asperger’s personalities. The Asperger’s personality will also lack empathy, the very quality which allows us to relate to the plight of tragedy victims. Smith would simply not have experienced  the moral antagonism which most of us would feel between looting and the suffering of those whose homes/businesses had been destroyed in an earthquake ...
            “Smith’s foster siblings appear to have been remarkably honest in their assessment of their foster brother. They do not, as they might justifiably have done, present his psychological condition as an excuse for his behaviour. They are also correct in their assertion that an Asperger’s personality would be utterly bewildered by - and unable to cope with - imprisonment. Laws appears unable to accept the idea that someone who can distinguish between right and wrong could also have ‘an odd compulsion to collect light fittings’ or be ‘addicted to light fittings’. He shows the bemused contempt for psychological conditions characteristic of the uninformed and prejudiced ...
            “While the contempt of Christchurch citizens for looters is entirely under-standable, you have to ignore Smith’s psychological disorder in order to place him unambiguously in that category. Laws is willing to do that in order to justify the lynch mob mentality that characterises most of his current writing and that allows him to include Smith among the despised ‘looting rats.’ (As an aside, have a look at the Nazi caricatures of the Jews in the early days of the Third Reich. They were most commonly portrayed as vermin.)
            “Laws chooses not to be moved by Smith’s sister’s and his mother’s defence of their brother and son on the grounds of the impact of his mother’s schizophrenia on his early life.”
            Commenting on Smith’s injuries, Laws provoked further anger by saying:  “We do not know if the injuries were sustained in his arrest, or in Smith’s resisting arrest – or, indeed, if the police had anything to do with them. Certainly, there is a feeling in Christchurch that he was bloody lucky that he received only a black eye. Some of the informal citizens’ patrols, established in the wake of the earthquake, would not have been so charitable. And then there was the natural resentment that, while tens of thousands of Christchurch citizens sat in the dark, without water, sewage, electricity or regular meals, the looters were banged up in a secure place with all the afore-mentioned amenities. In the immediate aftermath of the quake, it might well have been more comfortable being the rat.”
            The blogger’s response:  “As to whether Smith got his black eye from the police, I have no definitive answer. But he did not have a black eye when he was arrested and he had a black eye when he appeared in court. One might surmise that he got it either in the cells or from the cops ...
            “A problem for the Asperger’s personality is that he or she is without guile. They lack diplomacy. They say what they think, regardless of the impact of their words - a  potentially lethal characteristic in a witness confronted by a prosecutor in an emotionally charged court case.

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