But in the case of James Bulger, two children have been convicted, after a trial in which the details of their cruelty towards a child of two have been too awful to bear. There is, then, the second anguish, sharper even than the first: could either one of them have been mine? Could my child have thrown those stones? Could my child have come home with the blood of a toddler on the sole of his shoes?
In a world racked by public cruelties, there is some emotional defence in distance. But James Bulger's abduction and death took place in everyday surroundings. It was an evil grown at home and exercised in a shopping centre.
The notion of evil exists in many dimensions: it is a spiritual idea that evokes vengeance in the Old Testament and calls for love and forgiveness in the New. Both have been heard in this case, though the first, manifest in the crowd that howled for blood at the police van as it brought the accused to court, was the loudest.
But religion and science both inhabit our understanding and our scientific selves look for causes and cures to defuse the power of evil. Is this case a symptom of a moral sickness that our culture has produced and in which we are all complicit? Or are these boys freak victims of some dreadful abuse that has so stunted their inner selves that such actions became possible? Even as we acknowledge the evil, we feel the need to understand its origin, to protect ourselves from the horror.
Mercifully, it is rare for children to commit such crimes. Statistically, they are more likely to be boys than girls but there is no rule, despite this case, that says they are more likely to be poor than rich. Spectators at the trial searched the faces of the accused for some tangible sign that they were different, in anything, but the dreadful accusation against them, from any other child. All they found were two frightened boys, dwarfed by the scale of the events they had set in motion and anxious to go home. What explanation is there in that?
There are many reasons for painful collective reflection on this case. The nation experienced the agony of watching, impotently, the blurred video of the moment of James's abduction. It all seemed so normal but the truth was already known that something terrible had occurred and the few lessons we can safely draw from our reflections seem puny beside the horror of it.
There is the pain of the witnesses who saw James in the course of his last journey and who did not take charge of him, despite his obvious distress. Those individuals will always be haunted by their failure of responsibility, but how many of us can honestly say we would, before James's murder, have acted otherwise? Our culture holds busybodies in low esteem, but James's case teaches us that indifference is a worse failing.
There is the question of how distant the two children had become from the world they nominally inhabited. In the first half of the school term, Robert Thompson had been absent more than he had been present. Jon Venables's truancy rate had been almost as high but had improved slightly, after his father, concerned by his behaviour, started meeting him from school. They had created their own world before, truanting together. That afternoon, they created it again.
They were no strangers to rule-breaking, but nobody could predict the scale of the rules they would come to break. Even now, nobody knows what catalyst it was that was added to the chemistry of their alienation, or their relationship with each other, or their past experiences, to produce that terrible reaction. Their truancy was a signal that these two children were in trouble and adrift, like thousands of others. It is another uncomfortable reflection that we accept these social casualties lightly, unless they kill.
There is the pain of the three sets of parents. That of James Bulger's parents is all too easily understood and has been rehearsed in the imaginations of millions. That of the parents of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables has hardly been contemplated: they stand too close in the line of those whom, in our own distress, we might accuse to be the object of public sympathy.
Now the case is over, the search for explanations will intensify. It is part of the remedy for our collective trauma. We will read about the families, seeking for clues, tempted to mark the difference to our own, to establish our distance from the danger. Some will blame the families. Others will castigate the officials whom we have entrusted with the correction of our social ills.
We will never be able to understand precisely why, on that day, those two particular children killed that particular toddler. Many lives have been shattered by the James Bulger case and even those who only watch are wounded by it. It is a truth that psychologists understand and spiritual leaders lament, that those who are wounded themselves often seek to inflict pain on others. Perhaps that is what those child murderers will come to understand in the long years of confinement that now lie before them. And perhaps those who watch will come to understand that nobody should consider themselves immune from the consequences of pain inflicted on others.Reuse content