Leading Article: Freak murders beg local, panic-free response

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The Independent Online
It has been a week of murderously bad news for the children of England. In a green Kentish lane a mother, her children and the family pet are set upon. Such was the ferocity of the attack the police label the killer "deranged". A collective nerve jerks, horrified at the crime but also at its location, in Eden, on a summer's day. The symbolism is almost painful, this rural assault on innocence, the pitiless extinction of one child's life, the destruction of her mother and the savage injury done her sister as they walked through the Garden of England.

In the urban West Midlands a man with a machete invades a primary school picnic. Again, powerful symbols of lost innocence abound - teddy bears piled in a corner where terrified children abandoned them as they fled. Police in riot gear storm a grubby block of flats and arrest a man found hiding in a cupboard. On Merseyside a child's body is discovered and a perpetrator sought amid evil echoes of the Bulger case, a child murdered by children.

These crimes are all mad. But beyond that, they have nothing in common. Their coming together in a short space of days is mere coincidence. They support no great construct about man's fall and the moral failings of our age. Yet inevitably we bracket them mentally, trying to make sense of terrible events by analogies and common threads. It suddenly feels a more dangerous society. We pull our children closer, literally and metaphorically, worry about their physical security, look anxiously round at fellow adults - so normal-looking, but...

The rational mind cries caution and proportion. There will not be a similar week again. Children are just not murdered or attacked by strangers at this rate. This is a blip in a curve that is generally flat and may even be in long-term decline (decade-on-decade measures of child homicide suggest this). So for the umpteenth time we sensibly say, calm down, look at the figures. A sea of violence is not about to engulf the nation. Even in the much more violent United States crime rates can go down as well - and the rate at which criminals are caught and incarcerated may not have much to do with it either. Britain is and remains a safe society, for most adults, for most children. The common dangers of violence in childhood have to do not with adult intruders but with parents and relatives; and instances of abuse by them are mercifully rare. For most children, danger lurks in the most banal places: on the kerb, mounted on a bike, on the streets, and it comes from that most benign of adult tools, the motor car. No car, no Alton Towers; no car, less death and injury to children.

The rational mind has to ask, too, about weapons and fences and spending on community care. Unfashionable and complicated though such spending may be, it connects with crime and public safety. As for weapons, the attack in Wolverhampton seemed to support all those who have argued that access to lethal weapons increases the risk of harm. The Dunblane inquiry ended this week with a powerful submission by counsel for the victims' families, asserting the legal ownership of guns was a causal factor in the Hamilton rampage.

There are worrying signs that inquiry chairman Lord Cullen may not grasp the force of that point. One of the best memorials to the Dunblane victims would be change in policy - a straight ban on the private ownership of hand guns, say. If there is a trade-off, it is between the private pleasure of a small group of people who enjoy handling and firing weapons (albeit in gun clubs and the like) and the public interest in severely restricting access to weapons of destruction. Put like that, as it is should be, there is no contest.

School security is a less straightforward matter. Earlier this week our Transport Correspondent argued strongly as an urban parent that the best must not be the enemy of the good. Even if, it was argued, schools could be made safe from assault, the cost of their defences would not just be huge as a sum of money and displaced resources but deeply damaging to schoolchildren. This is, however, an argument in which generalisation should be eschewed. There are locations, not all of them in the heart of the city, where school heads, governors and teachers may for very good reasons wish for some kind of line or barrier between the school and its surrounds, whether fence, security cameras or better policing. Money is required but in the form of a fund, organised locally or nationally, to which individual schools can lay claim on the basis of their own assessments.

Our correspondence columns have shown how strongly some parents feel about the maintenance for their children of an open atmosphere at school, how vital to avoid any sense of imprisonment. All the more reason for the debate to be held school by school and to avoid some crude security formula imposed by the Department for Education and Employment or the Scottish or Welsh Offices.

We began with murder and morality; we end with bureaucracy and small, local defences. But isn't that how, in a society which is mature and slow to panic, it absolutely has to be?

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