Leading Article: The nation searches its soul

Click to follow
IT IS natural, but also paradoxical, that the abduction by two children of two-year-old James Bulger and his subsequent brutal murder should have provoked a painful debate about the nature of society today. Natural for many reasons. The killing was horrifying in itself. It made everyone wonder whether in this country an environment is being created in which young children are able to do such things. It stirred a host of fears among parents of small children. And it made us ask ourselves whether we would have interfered to save not just this obviously distressed toddler, but also victims of other violent crimes that we might see being committed.

Yet the reaction was paradoxical, because the crime was itself so unusual. Each year from 1982 to 1991, between 31 and 73 children under five were killed by someone known to them, generally their parents, and often in ways no less horrible than the death of James Bulger. The number killed by strangers ranged from zero to three, but in most years was one. For the strangers who murder young children to be pre-teenagers themselves is even more rare.

A more symptomatic horror story occurred a few days later when a 38-year-old woman stopped her car to allow two teenagers to push their stalled vehicle across the road. She was tied up in the back of her own car with a plastic bag over her head, sexually assaulted during a two-hour drive, doused in inflammable liquid and left trussed in the back of the burning vehicle. By a miracle she escaped before her clothes caught fire. The two youths showed the utter heartlessness and ruthlessness that is a result of total alienation from society.

In psychological jargon, they are affectless and unable to relate to other people, whom they treat as objects. If capable of distinguishing between right and wrong, they choose wrong. Minor adolescent criminals will probably always be with us: the statistics seem to indicate their number has fallen in the past 10 years. The minority of psychopaths, however, forms a quite different and more dangerous category, and their numbers and ruthlessness seem to be growing.

Yet the very abnormality of the circumstances surrounding James Bulger's death helped to make it one of those defining moments in the nation's consciousness. The killing seemed so inexplicable that it raised a whole new set of questions. Not that the nation had not recently supped full on horrific murders, such as those of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common, of Claire Tiltman at Greenhithe, Kent, and Manzula Amlani at Bagshot station, Surrey.

The Bootle tragedy coincides with a mood of national self-doubt, of fear that we are in the grip of a moral sickness, of horror at the world we seem to be bequeathing our children. Economic, political and social factors all play their part. Recession, unemployment and fear of unemployment, indebtedness and homelessness cast a pall of gloom over the country, as does the Government's lack of leadership.

The Prime Minister's recent attempt, in his Carlton Club speech, to portray socialism as the root cause of inner-city crime and vandalism was petty party politics at its worst. It came ill from a man whose proclaimed ambition has been to create 'a nation at ease with itself' (hollow laughter). The Labour Party has failed to provide a convincing alternative agenda, but is now showing welcome signs of moving towards a fresh, non-ideological approach on crime and its roots.

Yesterday, Tony Blair, Labour's home affairs spokesman, spoke of the dangers of a moral vacuum and the need to establish a new relationship between society and the individual, based on 'rights and duties that go together'. We must, he said, cease to regard politics as a choice between the individual and the community, and realise their interdependence. The absence of community does not mean the presence of freedom. The notion of community should be retrieved from a narrow view of the state and put to work again for the benefit of all.

The causes of crime are complex and multifarious, and no two psychologists, criminologists or sociologists agree on which components are the most important. Many criminals come from broken, violent and unloving homes. But a majority of those from such backgrounds are not criminals. Poverty and unemployment help to breed crime, but only a tiny minority views crime as a solution. The horrifying death of a toddler has re-opened one of society's oldest questions. The answers should be sought in a constructive and non- partisan spirit.