The stabbing of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor on a Peckham housing estate six years ago is one of those crimes that has defined the consciousness of modern Britain. Like the murder of Stephen Lawrence it put the spotlight on the police. Their apparent inability to catch the killers in both cases cast doubt over the effectiveness of our criminal justice system. Vital forensic leads were overlooked in the wake of Damilola's death. A chance six years ago to prosecute Danny and Rickie Preddie - the two young men convicted yesterday of Damilola's manslaughter - was missed. And a trial four years ago ended in fiasco after the testimony of a teenage witness, whom the police should have realised was unreliable, was rejected by the court.
But the wider social significance of each case was different. The Lawrence killing prompted a national debate about racism in our society that still goes on today. The killing of Damilola raised issues of a different, although not less disturbing, kind. The fact that a schoolboy could be left to bleed to death in a filthy stairwell woke many of us up to the Hobbesian nature of life in our deprived inner cities. We were forced to confront a world that the more fortunate among us often choose to ignore. This is a world in which poverty, total family breakdown, drug abuse, crime and random violence have reached terrible proportions; a world that decades of social initiatives from central and local government have failed substantially to improve.
Another aspect of this case appalled us. Despite the inability of the police to identify Damilola's killers, there was never much doubt that they were children themselves. We hoped after the death of James Bulger that the killing of children by other children was some sort of grotesque anomaly. Damilola's death plunged us back into an old nightmare.
Peckham has improved in the past six years. The squalid block of flats where Damilola died has been demolished. A good deal of public money has been spent on regeneration. But we should not allow ourselves to imagine that there are not many overlooked corners of the country that remain just as devoid of hope as Peckham was at the time of this killing. We learned this week that the number of knife attacks has risen dramatically in the past year. This is not a problem for the inner cities alone. But that is where such crime is concentrated.
We welcome the fact that Damilola's parents have seen their son's killers brought to justice at last. But, in truth, this verdict can provide no real comfort for our society because all too many parts of the Britain in which Damilola briefly lived and died remain largely, and depressingly, unchanged.