Deborah Orr: Signs of hope amid all this hatred

'People should save their disgust for the way in which we treat other children whose crimes are not so horrendous'
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A weekend that has seen newspaper rabble-rousing on a shameful scale has ended with a plea for calm from Ralph Bulger. How admirable this is. Only 48 hours after the announcement of the decision this bereaved father has dreaded for years, he has already turned his attention to the consequences of a search for vengeance.

He and his former wife Denise Fergus are the last people who should be placed in a position in which they are the ones who must attempt to reason with the baying crowd. But this man has put the safety of other people and their children before his own personal feelings of rage. Surely this must be seen as a turning point in the case.

Mr Bulger is not being a saint or a martyr. Who could expect him to be? But he is being a wise pragmatist, which is certainly good enough. He calls for "restraint" and for "time to reflect". He does not agree with the decision of the parole board. He does not believe that officially, "justice has been seen to be done". But he is also empathetic enough to understand that even when the locked doors are removed, the punishment of Thompson and Venables is not necessarily over. It is devoutly to be hoped that in adopting this line, Mr Bulger will find some measure of peace. He will certainly be admired for his stand, for he has chosen to use his influence intelligently. His words are designed to defuse a dangerous situation in which no one can win. Had he chosen otherwise, he could not have been condemned. But his bravery in speaking out as he has done is immense.

There are other signs too, amid the hate and the barbarism, that calm may prevail more quickly than anyone could have hoped. The Manchester Evening News, in embroiling itself in questions of illegal disclosure so quickly, has actually cleared the way for an extremely strong message to be sent out to the media in general. Even the News Of The World, no stranger to vigilante-stirring, has made a clear undertaking not to publish any relevant information (The rider that they will if the terms of the life licence awarded to Mr Thompson and Mr Venables have been broken, is something of a face-saver).

And after his anodyne, "don't blame the messenger"', announcement of the decision on Friday, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, has even come out with a little fighting talk. It is a pity he felt the need to refer to "undisclosed information" he had seen which convinced him more than ever of the horror of the crime. How can anyone need more convincing of that?

But his words about "emotional adrenalin" feeding the fantasies of the "sick of mind" are strong ones, and his authoritative pronouncement that "we will deal with things effectively and we will deal with them in a civilised manner", are words that have been so far conspicuously absent from the vocabulary of the Labour leadership.

In making these comments Mr Blunkett has come out in support of the professionals charged with actually dealing with the future lives of Mr Thompson and Mr Venables, rather than by omission pandering to those who have no wider agenda for justice at all. This too is a turning point, although one which has come shamefully late in the day.

It is sobering news that Lord Woolf will be setting aside a week in August to consider 72 other cases involving young murderers. All of these may be affected by the 1999 Strasbourg decision, made in connection with the Bulger case, that the home secretary should not be allowed to set tariffs. Among these cases will be that of Learco Chindamo, who stabbed to death Philip Lawrence, the London headmaster; Glen and John Howells, who killed their mother in 1995, and two 14-year-olds who murdered a vagrant in Bedford.

But in a way it is oddly appropriate that this news should come out now, for it is a timely reminder that while the murder of James Bulger remains a uniquely shocking case, the actions of Mr Thompson and Mr Venables, when they were children, are not quite as unknown as we would like to believe, or paradoxically quite so potentially common.

For a sense of proportion has been very much lacking from this case. While this crime is so abhorrent and so shocking precisely because it is so rare, the cry still comes for deterrence. It is an odd society which is so ready to believe that there are very many young children living among us with murder in their hearts, constrained from acting out their dark desires only because they believe that they will be severely punished for carrying out such deeds.

Even the most blind of vigilantes can't possibly think that only by lynching Mr Thompson and Mr Venables can the rest of the nation's youth be taught a little discipline about slaughtering the innocent. Even the most trenchant of propagandists can't believe that be inciting hatred they are setting a good example to children.

Instead, the opposite of all of this cant is true. While people are disgusted by the preferential treatment, and the soft ride Mr Thompson and Mr Venables have had on the inside, they should save their disgust for the way in which we treat other children whose crimes are not so horrendous.

It is a scandal that Thompson and Venables did murder before they got the help – educational and psychological – that they had clearly needed for some time. Habitual truants, disturbed and failing children, rarely get this help. These boys did. Eventually. It is how we treat the rest which is wrong, not the way we have treated these two. Only by greatly broadening the approach that has been used with the Bulger killers, can the young people that this government wants to help, be helped.

It is impossible to say what wider implications the rehabilitation of these two young men will have on the penal justice system. God knows that change has been a long time coming, to the detriment of us all. Could it be that eventually will all come to see from this case that brutalising the perpetrators of crime makes them more, not less dangerous, more not less of a problem?

Perhaps. But instead, at the moment, we tend to focus on the narrower implications of this case. Now the question is whether the teenagers will ever be allowed to put what they have learned in their secure units into practice, by leading useful lives. In some respects, the most useful life possible has been denied them, because of the anonymity that is a response to desire for revenge that has been so widely expressed by the public.

It would be folly now for Mr Thompson and Mr Venables to try to communicate their experiences to a wider world, to attempt to make sense of their actions for themselves and for others. It can only be assumed, that at some point in their lives, their desire to do this will become quite great. This they do, not for the benefit of all, but at their peril.

The anonymity of Mary Bell, the child murderer whose story is closest to that of Mr Thompson and Mr Venables, was eventually blown when she spoke to Gitta Sereny, the writer and journalist who had already completed one book about her life. No one gained from this witch-hunt, and thankfully, the consequences for Ms Bell have been less serious than they might have been.

There is every possibility that despite all the huffing and puffing, it will be possible for the new identities of Mr Thompson and Mr Venables to remain intact. If the boys themselves are rehabilitated enough to understand fully the enormity of their crime – and they wouldn't be coming out if they didn't – their own careful steps back into society will be their greatest protection. They must live the rest of their lives on eggshell. Good luck to them.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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