Leading Article: The hammer blow to our conscience

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The Independent Online
MORAL PANIC is one of those deflating phrases used by sociologists and other allegedly impartial students of human behaviour to condescend to excitements among the general populace. The phrase usually comes equipped with statistics which demonstrate that alcohol consumption was in fact much larger in the 1840s, or that football hooliganism actually began in 1898. Often it comes matched with another phrase: 'research shows that', as in 'research by a group of academics at the University of Welwyn shows that there is no causal link between popular videos showing bestiality and chainsaw massacres and the recent attacks on hens in Hertfordshire by youths with chainsaws.' The doctoral message is calming: do not worry, we have been here before, your concerns are an ersatz compound manufactured by the media, a few odd bishops, strident voices from the left and the right, moralists and nostalgists of all kinds.

This balm no longer serves. Britain is a worried country and it has a good deal to be worried about. Incidents which 20 years ago would have been accepted as sui generis, things unto themselves, of small relevance to the spectator outside their appeal to the human sympathy and voyeurism mixed up inside us all, are now read as a symbol and a portent. Bad ju-ju. Tony Blair, the shadow Home Secretary, did not not exaggerate on Friday when he likened the news bulletins of the last week to 'hammer blows struck against the sleeping conscience of the country, urging us to wake up and look unflinchingly at what we see'. This was not - as it once might have been - a party political argument which sought directly to connect the murder in Bootle of two-year-old James Bulger with unemployment and deprivation: the failures of capitalism equal crime, the economic system is to blame. As Blair went on: 'We cannot live in a moral vacuum. If we do not learn and then teach the value of what is right and wrong, then the result is simply moral chaos which engulfs us all.' A Tory theologian - John Patten, say - could have said that and few would have noticed. But we are all becoming moralists now - even Ken Livingstone has come out of the closet - and rightly so. We have lost all sense of direction; we mostly despise our political leadership; ancient institutions combine humour and pathos; the economy crumbles. President Bill Clinton across the Atlantic may not be totally sincere - in terms of global resources his is the most selfish society - and he may fail. But there is at least in his rhetoric an appeal to sacrificefor the common good, and to a sharing of values and beliefs, that no government minister could hope to match here, because Conservatism since Thatcher simply does not allow it. Our men at the top cling stubbornly to what one Japanese commentator described recently as 'a kind of inverted Marxism'. Their dogma is purely economic individualism, with occasional forays into Old Testament certainties (John Patten) and the criminal-spawning tendencies of socialist local authorities (John Major, at his silliest) to explain away the glaring failures of British society.

Where in all this does the tragic story of little James Bulger fit? Why does it so concern us? Some simple answers: because his abduction was captured on video, because the loss of a child is like a sun going out on adult lives, because that grief is so easily imagined and feared by any parent. And some more complicated ones: because other children allegedly abducted and killed him, because children scare us (when did you last intervene, as a stranger, to modify the bad behaviour of a bunch of 12- year-olds?), because it confirms the gathering folk wisdom (no need for 'research shows that') that a great spectrum of influences - violence as entertainment, poverty, useless parenting, aggressive money-making, hopelessness - has conspired to produce a generation (or rather a disturbing section of a generation) for whom words such as right and wrong, good and bad, are empty of meaning.

But this does not quite explain everything. It is useful here to go back to the case of Mary Bell, the 11-year-old Newcastle girl who in 1968 strangled to death two small boys, aged four and three. Her story is notorious. In court, Mary Bell appeared as strangely adult and manipulative. According to expert opinion she knew precisely what she was doing. Here, from Gitta Sereny's fine book on the case, is an exchange between the judge and a psychiatrist.

'It comes to this,' said the judge. 'Would she know that it was wrong to take another child by the neck and squeeze so that the child became unconscious?'

'Yes, I think she would.'

'Would she know that by taking a child by the neck and squeezing that she would result in (doing) injury to the child?'

'I think she would.'

'Would she know that killing was a crime?'


Neighbours remembered that she had laughed with delight in sight of one of her victim's funerals. Chilling notes were produced: 'Push off, we murder, watch out.' And yet, by today's standards, the case attracted little detailed attention. The press benches were rarely packed, reports in the London newspapers were sporadic, stories were not sold to the press. And, the biggest contrast of all, no angry crowds congregated outside the Bell home and lobbed stones at it.

That was a different time, before news and entertainment had become quite so confused, before Crimewatch, before national uncertainty, when the unemployment rate in Newcastle ran at 4.5 per cent. The case of Mary Bell shows that awful things can happen in any historical age, but that the public reaction to them is that age's alone.