Deborah Orr: Why are the British so offended by the idea of rehabilitation?

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The Independent Online

Of course it is right that decent people should agree that the unspeakable crime perpetrated against James Bulger was also a crime against humanity. It is right as well that, in the face of such a crime, humanity should recoil.

However, we surely can be certain that, in committing their ultimate act of cruelty and pitilessness, Thompson and Venables were ­ in their childish, instinctive way ­ expressing their anger not particularly against the small boy whose life they so barbarically stole, but against the reality of their own lives as they perceived them, and of life itself as it had found them. This is not an excuse, or a reason. It is simply a piece of forensic evidence in the psychic topography of this crime.

It can be of no comfort to Denise Fergus and Ralph Bulger, whose loss will torment them forever. They cannot and should not be expected now to take a dispassionate view of the future that awaits the boys who killed their son. But those among us who are lucky enough to be in a position to take such a view ­ expressly those professionals in the judicial system who are appointed to safeguard humanity in all its forms ­ must be allowed to do so. Because if anger, disgust and vengefulness win the fight that is raging for the right to guide the future of these boys, then they will not only have taken the life of a child of two.

Thompson and Venables will also have proved a point about the world that they could not even have consciously known themselves to be making. If it is right to be bloodthirsty and pitiless, then the promises to hound these young men, make them pay, taunt them, torture them, kill them, make sure they achieve no possibility of peace, are simply illogical. Because by that standard, these boys have done nothing so very wrong.

If it is wrong to be bloodthirsty and pitiless, then Thompson and Venables indeed committed a crime against humanity. So it is up to humanity to remind them every day, that what they did was utterly unacceptable, that civilised people do not do what they did.

But other plans are afoot, as soon as these teenagers, with their new identities, emerge from their secure accommodation. These plans ­ to track them down and "expose" them ­ cannot do anything but furnish them with the idea that what they felt and what they did was not so very different to the common impulses that many people hold in their hearts and feel themselves to be justified in playing out in their actions. Rather than punishing these boys, these plans will let them off the hook.

Can we not believe instead that a person who lives his life knowing that he is not only capable of, but has already committed, the most gross of all derelictions of everything that is sacred, may find punishment enough in that vast burden of knowledge?

Those responsible for deciding whether Thompson and Venables should be released will be asking themselves that question above all others. Therefore their release, far from angering us, should reassure us that justice has been done, and that the best in humanity has prevailed over the worst.

We call this rehabilitation, a simple alchemy whereby people can be taught and encouraged to live again within, rather than without, their own humanity. It says little positive about the temper of the times, that so many, many people appear to see that this is not only impossible, but utterly undesirable.