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On James Bulger and the concept of evil

20th March 2010

Back in 1993 Robert Thompson and Jon Venables perpetrated one of the most disturbing crimes in British history. Luring an infant from a shopping centre in Liverpool, the two ten year olds walked him a few miles, sexually assault him, beat him and left him dead on a railway line. The CCTV image of James being led away by one of the miscreants is etched on our collective memory.

When is a child not a child? It’s an important question. When children’s commissioner Maggie Atkinson, referring to the Bulger case, recently suggested that 10 year olds who commit crimes do not understand the full consequences of their actions, her remarks was deemed worthy of headline news. The media feasted and Denise Fergus (nee Bulger) demanded and received an apology from Ms Atkinson. Meanwhile Jack Straw, the Justice Minister and a man who must surely understand that good justice is based on clinical research and detachment, said nothing.

Maggie Atkinson is an experienced professional whose job it is to understand the motivations of children. Her expert views, based on science rather than emotion, are more valid that poor Fergus, a self-confessed Christian unable to forgive and thus murdered by her own hatred. This is what Fergus said:

“This woman owes James and me an apology for her twisted and insensitive comments. Then she should resign or be sacked. To say that his killers should not have been tried in an adult court is stupid…It is a shock to people like Dr Atkinson that children can be truly evil by 10..”

Of course, the Bulger case came to our attention last month when Venables was reincarcerated for “very serious offences” that many newspapers have claimed are related to child pornography.

Feelings run octane when it comes to child murder – especially, it seems, if the murderers are themselves children. Kids are our future, the things we cherish most, and the tragedy of an unlived life decimates the natural order when they are taken from us prematurely. Most adults are parents and would do anything to protect their offspring. I do not imagine there are many people without empathy for Denise Fergus. Thankfully very few of us know what is like to lose a child to murder. But her opinions, whilst understandable, lack humanity and feed a media frenzy that taps only into our baser instincts.

The day after Venables was taken into custody, The Sun was demanding we know where he is, what he looks like and his new identity. This appeal to the lowest common denominator is depressingly familiar from a supposedly civilised society. The tabloid justification is an over-simplication: Jon Venables is EVIL and deserves whatever he gets. Think about what Denise Fergus said once more:

“It is a shock to people like Dr Atkinson that children can be truly evil by 10.”

Evil? There is no such thing. Some children are badly damaged by their environment, thankfully most of us are spared. In many ways Venables and Thompson are as much victims as Fergus. I stop short of saying “more than Fergus”, but it is the killers who were never given a chance and whose miserable childhoods were so horrifically manifest that day in Liverpool.

Many people, not least Fergus and The Sun, believe that Thompson and Venables should have been locked up for life, not the eight years they received. Michael Howard, Home Secretary at the time, attempted to detain them for 15 years but was overridden by the European Court of Human Rights. Yet surely a child of ten is far less equipped to comprehend their actions than an adult. What about a father aged 44 jailed for seven years for killing his 15 month old son, a case that received scant attention but coincided with the Bulger case. As Blake Morrison, author of an number of excellent essays on the Bulger case, wrote ten years later, “Is a middle-aged man who kills his own baby less culpable than a boy of 10 who kills someone else’s baby? It seems we think so.”

Look beyond the details of any case and behind the eyes of the most cold-blooded killer, and you will find abuse, bullying, despair and a childhood riddled with dysfunction, alcoholism and violence. This applies to adults who kill every bit as much as the children who maim or murder. When personal boundaries are consistently and horrifyingly invaded and matters of right and wrong confused, it is little surprise when brains that are shaped by unseemly formative experiences reflect back these experiences onto others.

Children commit extreme crimes because the mechanisms that holds back their contemporaries aren’t working for them. These sad, unfortunate kids are to be pitied, not pilloried. They are ill, sickened by lives shot through with misery and wrongness to a level few of us would wish to comprehend.

Forgive me, but Morrissey once sang, “It’s so easy to hate, it takes strength to be gentle and kind” How true. In the absence of thought, patience, empathy or knowledge, hate is a lazy autopilot. Whilst I would not suggest that children such as Thompson and Venables, and Mary Bell before them, should be exempt from the consequences of their actions, I do humbly call for for greater understanding, and a more therapeutic approach.

The Daily Mail, a truly despicable publication so quick to condemn, laid bare the actions of two young brother from Doncaster – about the same age as Venables and Thompson – in a recent much-publicised case. Thankfully their two victims survived, but no thanks to the “sadistic”, “feral” pair who “yawned in court” – reminiscent of Thompson and Venables sucking lollipops in 1993. Such reporting says, “what demons of indifference” these children are, as Morrisson eloquently puts it. A Mail article from September last year includes a “Charter of Horror”, with bullet points of what the brothers inflicted upon the other two boys.

The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10. In most other EU countries it is 12 or 14. The UN has called on the UK to raise this age “considerably”. So why don’t we? You could put it down to our tabloid press, but then a country gets the media it deserves. That means it must be us. Clearly there is something inherently wrong with a society that wants, in numbers, to string up murderers (murder being an outward manifestation of severe inward fuck-up) and hunt down paedophiles (most paedophiles were themselves abused) whilst ignoring any of the reasons behind such behaviour.

Preventing these horrors from occurring is impossible. A tiny handful of children will always perpetrate unspeakable deeds. But to demonise them is to deny the complexity of society’s ongoing breakdown and to ignore problem areas that are begging to be addressed including family breakdown, health, alcohol and drugs. Children should always be looked after, never locked away.