Real people and real things - like hatred and fear, failure and pity

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THERE are a few sparks under all this ash. The debate on James Bulger's murder has burnt itself out, for want of fresh fuel, and people who feel that there was more to be said are staring disconsolately into the cinders. But the debate was not entirely a failure.

Manipulation took place, of course. The television interviews with relations and policemen and teachers were all in the can weeks before the verdict, and the agenda for public concern had been drawn up. Single parents, truancy, decay of neighbourliness, poverty and crime, video nasties . . . all were studio guests in this ventriloquism game show.

And yet real people said real things, too. Nineteen out of 20 people in the United Kingdom probably spoke their minds, in private or public, about the murder of a two-year-old boy by two 10-year-old boys. These opinions went mostly to two addresses: 'How could they have?' and 'Is any punishment bad enough for them?'

The first question was very much on the official agenda for self-questioning. The second was very much off it. I still see the instant on BBC1's Good Morning . . . with Anne and Nick show, as James Bulger's uncle said that when the two little murderers came out of jail, 'we'll be f . . . . . . waiting'. The two presenters froze. Anne Diamond's mouth became a black 'O' of terror. A paralysed second passed before Nick Owen began to gabble about understandable emotional stress and cut the uncle off.

That was not memorable because the uncle was right or even defensible. There are no 'answers' in the Bulger tragedy, but even if there were, vendetta assassination would not be among them. It was memorable because it showed that a large section of our moral landscape is stage scenery; that a decent, politically liberal Star Chamber of media people and politicians still draws the limits for 'acceptable concern'. Even if we share the Star Chamber's views on crime and punishment, which I do, we have to realise that 'identifiable public opinion' has passed through its filter. The residue has been intercepted, sanitised and dumped.

'How could they have?' soon became 'How could we have let it happen?' This was the first spark to emerge from the ash. The British still believe not only that abandoning people is wrong but that institutions exist to overcome abandonment. If two children roam the streets and then commit murder, this is their crime but also society's failure - not just in a vague, general way, but because some department or committee or board-appointed inspector has fallen down on the job.

This is still a rare attitude in the world. Brazilians are stricken to see their abandoned street children murder one another, or to watch them rounded up and shot by the police. But they do not protest that some caring mechanism has failed, because no such mechanism has ever existed. When teenage gang rape devastates some Californian ghetto, white Angelinos do not ask where the hell the truancy officer was but shake their heads over 'the implosion of the underclass'. The British, and a few other rich countries which believed in government, once decided that abandonment could be controlled. It was not the fecklessness of poor parents which had filled Mayhew's London and the Goncourts' Paris with street children, but industrialisation. And just as inspectors could oversee industrial safety regulations, so they could oversee schooling and policing which controlled the public activities of children.

This window of social-democratic enlightenment is now closing; our government is determined to deport neglected children from public responsibility to private charity. But the James Bulger tragedy showed that the British do not yet agree. It must have been somebody's job to stop Robert Thompson and Jon Venables habitually marauding through town in school hours. If not, why not?

A second spark in the ashes, it seems to me, is the survival of a rather English view of human nature. This is the acceptance that most people are inadequate. It is hard to cope with modern life at the best of times. A single parent trying to raise children on income support in a bad Liverpool housing scheme in a recession . . . it's too much to expect.

There are always some who do manage: who don't lie about other sources of income, who manage to keep up with their debts, whose kids don't thieve but get to school with clean anoraks and a hot breakfast inside them. But most people are not saints, and life easily comes to bits in their hands. A state which assumes that everybody is a twinkling, gleaming, self- regulating profit-centre is a bloody silly state.

Listening to Liverpool people discussing one another's lives in that sort of vein, I thought I picked up traces of the most unfashionable of all virtues: pity. Nobody wants pity] But this was not the scalding, superior pity of office high-flyer for superannuated plodder, or of married aunt for unmarried aunt. It was a different feeling, cousin to another neglected quality: mercy. This is religious territory, or at least the territory of those who suspect that when God created Man, she was only practising. None of us are much to write home about. Our claims to be in charge of our own lives are mostly bluff. It follows that we are linked to others by common failure, rather than by separate success: we should identify with others in their lapses rather than in their triumphs. Failure is the uniting experience. Mercy to others is also mercy to ourselves: the fraternity and sorority of those who don't measure up.

Could any ethic be more opposed to contemporary politics than this sort of mercy and pity? Solidarity in failure? Campaign after campaign has tried to clout this 'sodden self-pity' out of old urban cultures like Liverpool and Glasgow. All the same, it survives. Evidently it has deep roots. Some of those roots reach politics: buried banners, on which Equality and Fraternity were once painted.

Others burrow down to Nonconformist and Catholic scepticism about the perfectibility of man. But the real point is that mercy and pity between equals make sense in merciless and pitiless surroundings.

For Robert and Jon, the ashes hold no spark. Their community, swept away in a rite of self-purging, says it wants them dead. Local policemen (they may be the ones who have watched too many video nasties) repeat that they are freaks possessed by evil. And that is how they have been treated.

Yes, they must be taken through all the stages of atonement. Yes, those who were injured by them have the right to witness that atonement. But to lock them up until they are young men and then tip them into the British prison system - a death sentence would have been kinder] When they did it, they were 10 years old, for pity's sake.