Is society breeding child-killers?

Such grotesque deaths arouse in us fears that cannot be rationalised or assuaged

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Three children were murdered this weekend. Seven-year-old Sophia Hook was abducted from a tent and found strangled nearby. Robert Gee, 12, and Paul Barker, 13, were kidnapped while fishing and stabbed to death.

The incidents are singularly revolting - profoundly depressing precisely to the extent that they provide images of a grotesque invasion of innocence and normality. What activities could more exactly evoke the idyllic summer routines of childhood than camping and fishing? The nostalgic familiarity makes the feeling of futile destruction all the more intense. The times are out of joint; we cannot protect even that which we all agree is so absolutely worthy of protection.

The response is, therefore, extreme, apocalyptic. We live in a rotten, corrupted age, in a society stalked by evil freaks and perverts. The world is richer but nastier than it was when children dreamed away the Edwardian summer. Our society breeds the child-killer.

The same message, that we can no longer nurture childhood, is beamed to us from the world of entertainment. Child porn, we are told, is easily available on the Internet. There are "sites" in "cyberspace" created and regularly visited by those who take pleasure in the abuse of children. Cinema is also in on the act. A new Hollywood movie, Kids, "reveals" the "truth" of early teen sex as the latest deviant thrill for film fans. An "issue" surfaces and the usual stale debate about decadence versus free expression takes place. Kids will soon be showing in all good cinemas and newspaper columns.

The point is that we know children are abused and murdered and that teenagers behave distressingly badly distressingly early, but these days we are reminded daily. The threats and anxieties feel closer, more immediate. After this weekend and the ensuing coverage, it seems that nobody's children are safe. The summer picnic has been invaded by monsters.

As a result of this fear, children are now more closely protected than ever before. They do not, in general, walk to school. Parks and shopping malls have become contemporary images not of pleasure but of constant threat. The stranger is a source of potential evil, unspeakable harm - our children are taught to regard him with fear and loathing. They acquire a sense of the world as replete with dangers that remain vague because their parents cannot bring themselves to be specific about such horrors. Police officers visit our primary schools to tell seven-year-olds what to do if approached by somebody who may wish to rape and kill them.

The statistics should be able to persuade us that this is all nonsense. Very few children are abducted and killed. In 1973, 83 under-16s were murdered in England and Wales; and in 1993 the figure was 73. Less than a tenth of these were killed by strangers. Perhaps more are molested or approached, perhaps many such incidents go unreported, but the figures are still small. Are we right to allow our entire world and the world of our children to be changed on the basis of such a statistically remote possibility?

Answering this is not easy. Clearly the first question it raises is: has anything changed? Has the world really become less safe for children? The answer is obviously no. Disease and infant mortality carried off far more in the Victorian and Edwardian "golden ages" than killers do now. Equally, the Victorians tolerated what we would call unhealthy relationships between adults and children - probably because they refused to acknowledge the awful possibility that flowery sentiment could camouflage lust. The full catalogue of what perverted Victorian adults did to children is unknown because of the evasions of social conventions and class - poor children could be abducted and killed without newspaper columnists taking much notice.

It is, in short, highly unlikely that our age is significantly more savage to its children than any other. For cultural pessimists - like myself - this may be hard to acknowledge. Some like to argue that our libertarian moral corruption has encouraged killers by providing them with the justification that "if it feels good, do it". In all honesty, however, this argument cannot be sustained. On the one hand there is no evidence that child killing was less common in the past, and, on the other, it is highly unlikely that the specific and extreme mental condition that drives a man to kill a child can be simply related to the complexities of a moral climate.

But - and this is a very big "but" indeed - something has changed. The sinister park or mall and the accompanied walk to school may not be rational symptoms of a new reality, but they are certainly the result of a new awareness. Mere reason should not make us disregard the adoption of such radically new habits. Something has changed us.

That something is knowledge. The horrible death or rape of a child is now known to everybody almost the moment it happens. And thanks to the vast appetite of the contemporary media for details, however ghastly, not only the fact of the incident is known, but also its whole grim reality. "Family" newspapers may not quite go to the limit, but it does not take much imagination to interpret the few euphemisms still employed. Look at the Hugh Grant case - only the LA police felt obliged to hide behind the legalism of a "lewd act"; we got the message that it was oral sex almost at once. And, on the streets, a blow job has already become a "Hugh Grant".

In the case of the absolute evil of child murder this knowledge becomes a vast, pervasive spectre. Statistics may tell us we have little to fear. But the knowledge is still there.

This conflict between reason and fear is the hellish inversion of the National Lottery's exploitation of the conflict between reason and hope. The attack on your child is as disturbing a possibility as the lottery win. Both might happen to you because they happened to them. The photographs and the interviews prove it - these were ordinary people doing ordinary things and then, suddenly, their lives were changed.

The possibility of the win or the murder once seen cannot be unseen. Both represent an absolute, an eventuality which, though wildly improbable, demands planning, action, changes in habits. People are forced to think big in the little details of their lives. The lottery ticket must be bought - just in case; the child must be walked to school - just in case. An extreme transformation of ordinary life seems always to be just around the corner.

Ultimately one can only say that this is what it is like to be alive now - to be a prey to extravagant hopes and to every passing, appalling anxiety. You cannot hide because the knowledge will seek you out and find you. There is no "home" to run to. Evil happens, and the world is full of people eager to tell you about it. Good happens, and the world is equally full of people eager to make you pay for the hope that it might happen to you.

Somehow, in spite of these vast, enervating pressures, most people get on with things. Others go mad and, after last weekend, why not?

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