James Bulger: The death of innocence

There are no meanings to be found in James Bulger's murder, says Geraldine Bedell

'These two monsters could have been your children,' screamed the headline in France Soir on Thursday. And this has been the fear that has gripped the imagination this past week: that those boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, with their smooth skins, their school uniforms, their soft mouths, could have been any children, given different circumstances. All children experiment, test out their power, wonder 'what if?'. Did James Bulger's murderers simply experiment too far? Did they find themselves caught up in an afternoon of destruction from which there seemed no escape but further, and more final, violence? Was the coming together of those three children at the Strand shopping centre in Bootle on 12 February simply an aberration? Or does it offer lessons that could prevent its ever happening again?

'These two monsters could have been your children,' screamed the headline in France Soir on Thursday. And this has been the fear that has gripped the imagination this past week: that those boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, with their smooth skins, their school uniforms, their soft mouths, could have been any children, given different circumstances. All children experiment, test out their power, wonder 'what if?'. Did James Bulger's murderers simply experiment too far? Did they find themselves caught up in an afternoon of destruction from which there seemed no escape but further, and more final, violence? Was the coming together of those three children at the Strand shopping centre in Bootle on 12 February simply an aberration? Or does it offer lessons that could prevent its ever happening again?

In Roald Dahl's short story for older children, The Swan, 15-year-old Ernie catches younger boys after school and twists their arms behind their backs. 'Brought up in a household where physical violence was an everyday occurrence, he was himself an extremely violent person,' Dahl writes. With his easily led friend, Raymond, Ernie drags bookish, small, bespectacled Peter Watson on to the railway lines and sits smoking cigarettes, waiting for him to be killed by a train. The express comes through and misses their victim, so Ernie and Raymond kill a swan, dismember it, tie its wings to Peter's arms, force him to climb 50 feet up a tree and shoot him. It is a grotesque story at any time, chilling in the aftermath of James Bulger's death - not least because Jon Venables dreams of rescuing James and taking him back to his parents, and imagines the world turned into a giant chocolate factory.

THE Dahl story suggests that it doesn't take much to topple a bad boy into evil, and this idea, that children's cruelty is highly dangerous, liable to spill over at any time, is a persistent theme in literature. William Golding's Lord of the Flies is the classic example, its children, savages restrained only by adult watchfulness. Stranded on an island, their precarious society disintegrates, becomes nature red in tooth and claw. The boys divide, kill once out of fear, and a second time because killing has become easy. At the end, found on the beach by British naval officers, 'with filthy body, matted hair and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy'.

Or there is Richard Hughes's A High Wind In Jamaica: the story of two families of English children who fall into the hands of pirates. Emily, the eldest child, kills a prisoner; the pirates are tried for the murder and some are hanged. On the closing page, Hughes sees Emily standing among other little girls at her new school in Blackheath. 'Looking at that gentle, happy throng of clean innocent faces and soft graceful limbs, listening to the ceaseless, artless babble of chatter rising, perhaps God could have picked out from among them which was Emily: but I am sure that I could not.'

Susan Hill in I'm The King of the Castle, and Yukio Mishima in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea explore the viciousness that lies beneath what we imagine to be innocence. Ian McEwan, for whom this is also a persistent theme, believes the preoccupation is actually not with children at all, but with adults - a contemporary image of the Fall, expulsion from the Garden of Eden. 'The violent child is the most potent image of violated innocence that we have. If humankind is capable of this, then perhaps we are beyond redemption,' he says. 'If we were really disturbed about children we would be concerned that they are dying every day of preventable illnesses. But what really intrigues us, and why the papers are running this story as though nothing else has happened in the world, is not that a child has died, but because of the nightmare of lost innocence.'

In Cider With Rosie, Laurie Lee describes seeing a girl with lovely fair hair and hitting her over the head with a vase, just to see what happens. She cries, although she could, presumably, have died. But does this literary continuum of normal behaviour and murderous violence have more than symbolic resonance? Does it bear any relation to reality? Nicholas Tucker, lecturer in child psychology at Sussex University, thinks it does. He recalls interviewing a child who had killed. 'He described how he had stood on a bridge, dangling the other child over the Thames,' he says.

'The question I had to attempt to answer was whether the killing was deliberate. He claimed the child had slipped. And I thought of all the games I'd played when I was a child that could have gone wrong. Even quite nice children drop kittens out of windows. They hurt young siblings. There is a view that children would be even more destructive if they weren't monitored as closely.'

We expect children to be different because we idealise children, think of them as innocent. But it may be that the real differences between children and adults when it comes to murder are that children rarely have the strength to murder others, nor the complex relationships that would give them motivation, nor the cunning to plan. Most are also supervised most of the time. John Pearce, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Nottingham University, thinks 'there is a much smaller difference between what these children did and what other children do than may meet the eye. It would be wrong to assume these children are different, evil. We all have aggressive impulses, and some people are trained to express their aggression.' Other child psychiatrists talk of a continuum of behaviour, from children pulling wings off butterflies at one end, to sadism at the other. The point at which we need to worry, they say, is the point at which the perpetrators are heedless of the pain of their victims, either because they have become inured to violence, or because they are psychopathic, incapable of empathising.

And yet none of this fits the reactions of the police who interviewed the boys, and don't think they are like others. 'I believe human nature spurts out freaks,' said Sgt Phil Roberts. 'These two were freaks who just found each other. You should not compare these two boys with other boys; they were evil.' Even if some people travel a continuum of violence from pulling cats' tails to committing murder, it doesn't mean that others will do so; and these boys' backgrounds suggest a quite particular, dangerous combination of individual inclination, unstable family life and social deprivation. They did not look like ordinary boys, even before the murder.

ROBERT Thompson's nickname was Damian, after the anti-hero of the Omen films. His mother was deserted by her husband, drank and couldn't manage the children. He was a persistent truant, who sometimes wandered the streets until 1am. When his father occasionally returned to Walton to see his mother, he didn't bother to visit his seven children. One of Robert's older brothers asked to be taken into council care. He was sent home after a year, and swallowed a bottle of paracetamol in a suicide bid to get back in.

The older boys picked on the younger ones in the family; Robert was both bullied and the bully. A few weeks before killing James, he had abandoned his younger brother, crying, by the canal. His statement to police - 'If I wanted to kill a baby, I'd kill my own, wouldn't I?' - suggests ambivalent feelings at best towards his brother. And yet in some ways he was little more than a baby himself. He sucked his thumb and liked to collect dolls. It is not inconceivable that he projected hatred of his own vulnerability and babyishness on to James. The police suspected that his was the dominant, more malevolent personality, and there has been some speculation that, like Mary Bell, convicted of the murder of two small children in 1968 at the age of 11, he might have been psychopathic, and lacked the ability to imagine what others feel.

Jon Venables has been described as easily led. Like Robert Thompson, he was kept down a year at school. He came from a more affluent, less obviously violent and disruptive home than Robert, but both his older brother and younger sister needed special schooling, and he was bullied by other children: he would return home from school visibly upset. He used to roll vertically along classroom walls, bang his head against furniture, tear down fellow pupils' work, cut himself with scissors and stick paper all over his face. He was eventually suspended for trying to choke another boy by holding a ruler across his throat. It took two teachers to pull him away.

He was sent to another school, near his father's home. He met Robert Thompson, and they became allies in under-achievement. Jon started to play truant, despite the best efforts to control him by his parents (who separated in 1988 but are now back together). He and Robert would steal things, and hang around, looking for sensation.

Separated parents, poverty, truanting, videos, a brutal atmosphere - all these may have been contributory factors. But none of them offers a sufficient explanation, and taken altogether they affect many children who do not murder. All the theorising about the implications for society, and the semantic arguments about whether this is evil or just extreme naughtiness out of control, fail to take us much further. We know very little about child cruelty: the only studies of cruelty against animals, for example, have been undertaken retrospectively, on adult criminals. So we know that adult criminals have been cruel to animals as children, but not whether large numbers of other children outgrow a cruel phase. (The RSPCA is just beginning research which should shed some light on this.) Home Office statistics show that only two children aged 10 to 13 have been convicted of murder since records began in 1950, and only two of manslaughter. In the 13-16 age group, 35 have been convicted of murder and 45 of manslaughter. There are currently 12 million children in this country; the murderers are a minuscule proportion, offering few statistical clues. Frank Jones, a Toronto-based journalist and the author of Murderous Innocents, a book about child murderers due out in February, draws few general conclusions about the 13 murders he describes. (One is James Bulger's murder, another the Mary Bell case.) Jones subscribes to the view that one child involved is usually the instigator, and is psychopathic, although he or she needs an accomplice in order to kill. 'It is surprising how easily such children seem to be able to get others to go along with them.'

Unfortunately, if there are no pat solutions, there can be no catharsis. Michele Elliott, founder of Kidscape, the pressure group that campaigns against bullying and child abuse, notes that 'there is nowhere for us to put our anger. If a man commits a crime against a child, he can be sent to prison, and we can feel satisfied. There is a sense of retribution, not least because we know that perhaps other prisoners will attack him. But what can we feel when the murderers are children?' It is impossible to listen to the taped confessions of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables without feeling the most confusing mixture of revulsion and distress - and not only for James.

Michele Elliott believes that the meeting in the Strand shopping centre 'was the most unfortunate coming together of three children this century'. It is unlikely that either Robert or Jon would have committed the murder alone, and unlikely that either would have killed if circumstances had been different - in their personalities, upbringings, the places they lived. But that is like saying that if their parents had not met, they would not have been born; it takes us no further. Ian McEwan believes last week's 'blizzard of theorising' is just a whirl of confusion. 'It's not enlightening, but we're all hooked, all imagining that terrible journey, like a mad piece of music, a tarantella of escalating violence.' The most interesting question, in the end, is why we are so obsessed. We keep trying to use this case in some way, but it won't be used. What happened to James Bulger, and to Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, is meaningless, except that it shows us hell.

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