How our country made two young children into killers

Venables and Thompson were victims of the undeclared war that rages across Britain
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The Independent Online

I have one question for myself. Had it been my child abducted and brutally done to death on that February afternoon seven years ago, would I be able even to consider the prospect of mercy? Never mind the fact that the killers were themselves children or that they may now have been "rehabilitated", would I be capable of assenting to their release? If I am honest, the answer must be no.

I have one question for myself. Had it been my child abducted and brutally done to death on that February afternoon seven years ago, would I be able even to consider the prospect of mercy? Never mind the fact that the killers were themselves children or that they may now have been "rehabilitated", would I be capable of assenting to their release? If I am honest, the answer must be no.

There is nothing in my world so terrifying as the thought that harm will be wrought on my child, and nothing so sure as my sense that the hope of vengeance would live with me forever.

And when James Bulger's mother Denise says she is "disgusted and shocked" by what Lord Woolf has done, and laments that Jon Venables and Robert Thompson will never be "legally punished" for what they did, I am surprised only by the temperate tone of her language. Hers was the voice of bewilderment and irredeemable loss. She may well hate the killers - and she has every right to - but the statement read to the press on her behalf was dignified and restrained.

Before going on, it is worth remembering the violence inflicted on two-year-old James Bulger. He was first coaxed away from his mother by what must have been friendly gestures; his killers then took him towards a canal, dropping him on his head and punching him. They reached a railway line and began stoning the toddler with bricks. There was also evidence that the killers had inserted batteries into the child's anus before finally picking up a heavy piece of metal tracking and smashing it on the child's head. James's body was then laid across a railway line where it was cut in two by a goods train. All of this took place over several hours. It was not a sudden act of blind violence.

James Bulger was somebody else's child, and yet I can readily identify with his mother's demand for retributive justice. I do what most parents do in these cases and automatically imagine that it might have been my child. It is an instinct which serves us well if it leads to compassion and generosity, but self-projection in a case like this can take us too easily down the dark alleyway of vengeance. That is why we need the dispassionate and wise counsel of a judge like Lord Woolf.

Our criminal justice system is based on the proposition that humanity can be redeemed; yes, we believe in punishment, but as an instrument towards change. That is the theory, at any rate. (It doesn't work like that in practice, of course - as Lord Woolf's judgement has stressed, our prisons are anything but places of rehabilitation.)

It is an ethic based in the tradition of the New Testament, and whatever the failings in practice, it is surely the only civilised way to proceed. There are self-evident exceptions to the notion of rehabilitation, individuals whom society broadly agrees are beyond the realm of change. There are also crimes which are deigned so heinous - genocide, to name the main - that "life meaning life" imprisonment is the only possible sanction.

It is also surely worth pointing out that we have already established the principle in these islands of freeing people guilty of horrific crimes, long before any reasonable person would believe they'd paid their debt to society. One hour's flight from London and still in the UK, you can enter a world where the killers of men, women and children enjoy premature liberty in the name of a greater good. It is a price we are prepared to pay for peace.

In the more benighted regions of Africa, the Government and several British NGOs support the rehabilitation of children who have committed the most grievous atrocities against society. They are child soldiers who have indulged in gang rape, mutilation and murder, citizens of a post-moral world in which the human instinct for control is paramount. We support the rehabilitation schemes in the belief that they can be remade as human beings, and because we implicitly accept that they themselves were victims.

I have struggled with this concept on more than a few occasions. When a 13-year-old with a gun is menacing you at an African roadblock, it is difficult to see him as the "victim". Or when a terrified old woman on a Leeds housing estate told me she "just wanted to die" after her second mugging by a teenage junkie, I felt a reflexive instinct to do violence to her attacker.

And there will be voices who say any comparison between the plight of African child soldiers and that of Venables and Thompson is absurd. But you can compare. I would argue that Venables and Thompson were victims of war, alright - the great, undeclared war that rages with quiet brutality across the marginal zones of Britain, a war we are free to ignore because it so rarely crashes directly into our lives.

They come from the undercountry, where broken homes and domestic violence, alcoholism and drugs are part of the ordinary. This is a Britain whose very existence we struggle to acknowledge, so strangely at odds does it seem with the general air of prosperity. Maybe denial is a better word for what is happening here. Specialists in addiction call it "the elephant in the sitting-room" syndrome. It is big and scary but, if it sits there long enough, we can pretend it is just part of the furniture. Until it lurches out and crushes somebody.

We get hints of life in that other country. Read the drug-addiction statistics, the figures for alcohol-related crime, and pay special attention to the latest report on domestic violence. The figures painted a frightening picture, and were given suitable "shock, horror" treatment in the press. But who do we think is witnessing all this domestic violence? Who exactly is offered the example of the fist and boot? The children, of course. As Philip Larkin so memorably wrote: "Man hands on misery to man."

I don't offer any of this as an alibi for Thompson and Venables; even at the age of 10, they had some idea of the magnitude of what they were doing. They could not be sent home from court with a warning. It was right to send them to the secure unit and to deny them their liberty for almost eight years. But we are in danger of being hypnotised by our revulsion at their crime.

In the case of Venables and Thompson, the evidence suggests that they have moved towards rehabilitation and are filled with remorse for their crime. And it was the Daily Mail - in a reflective piece by Geoffrey Levy - which pointed to the dedication of both boys' mothers in supporting their children throughout their incarceration. They will have a support system when they leave and assume their new identities. The Mail is no friend of wishy-washy liberalism, but it is fair-minded enough to recognise that our young offenders' institutions are a "national scandal". Sending Venables and Thompson into this environment would be madness. At some stage they would have to be released - and who would offer bets on the likelihood of their leading crime-free lives after spending years in the company of hardened criminals?

The anguish of Denise Fergus can never be rationalised away. Nor can Venables, Thompson or anyone speaking on their behalf, blame society for their crime. But we would be fools to imagine that they just loomed out of the mist like evil ghosts. They were brutal killers, but they grew up in our country.


The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent