This week we have been given images of a different atrocity: James Bulger, the toddler whom none of us saved. It is a crime far more relevant to me than the napalming of Vietnam. It happened here, in an English shopping centre, to a boy the same age as one of my sons. Yet, like almost everyone else I meet, I have been quickly turning the page, rather than reading the details of the case. I simply cannot bear it.
We already knew much of what happened to James Bulger before the trial opened. We knew he disappeared in a shopping centre in the time it takes for a mother to find coins in her purse. We knew video cameras had shown two boys leading a small child away. We knew some adults saw them and that one stopped to find out what was going on. We knew he was brutally assaulted and left for dead on a railway track. We knew his alleged killers were 10 years old.
What did we, the public, want from this trial? At its simplest we wanted those responsible to be punished. We perhaps hoped the judge in his summing up would find words to help expunge our national guilt that we could be the kind of people who let this sort of thing happen.
There is also a fascination with A and B, the accused boys. What could lead any human being, never mind a child, to commit such an act of depravity, if indeed they have done? Could our children ever be capable of such a thing?
What many, like me, would rather not have had from this trial is a blow by bloody blow account of the killing of this helpless child. The first day's headlines of bricks and iron bars and blood were too much for many of us. Surely it was enough to know he died a brutal death. The only people who did need to know more were judge and jury and, possibly, Mr and Mrs Bulger, though their ordeal and their needs are unimaginable. Once the deed was done, the Bulgers might have taken comfort from the thought that their child was at peace, decently buried, leaving them with their private grief. Now, it is as if he is going through his torment again, his little body being stripped of its last remnants of dignity, every cut and bruise exposed to the public gaze. And it is brutalising for all of us.
Some people have argued sincerely that it is necessary. Just as we needed to see the girl burnt by napalm and the victims of the concentration camps, so we need to see exactly how dreadful was the pain inflicted on this little boy. But these cases are not the same. Wars are political actions and those who report their human consequences give people the chance to say 'No. You cannot do this. We will not tolerate it'.
James Bulger's death alone, without the horrible details, was enough to prompt this reaction. How grotesque had we become? Where were the civilising structures that separated us from Piggy and the boys in Lord of the Flies?
Anyone who thinks we needed to know more has clearly not spent time at the school gate. At the time of the murder, parents talked of little else, and it has been the same again this week. But instead of talking about the implications, parents are talking about the coverage. Men and women who would normally want the unadulterated truth have been switching off their radios and televisions because they find the evidence unbearable. It is too graphic, too intrusive; it makes them feel physically sick. It is, one said, too close.
All parents imagine their own child in little James Bulger's shoes. One three-year-old wandered briefly out of school on Wednesday morning while his mother was sorting out his older brother. He was found before we knew he had gone, but the fear was palpable. Parents are becoming paranoid.
Those who justify the use of graphic detail have argued that this story is useful and instructive, that unless we were told, we would be the ones who next time would pass by on the other side. They are wrong. The danger is that many of us won't be there on the streets at all, preferring to move about between locked houses in locked cars.
The case should be reported, and reported well. But just because, for the purposes of justice, appalling details emerge in evidence is not a reason to parade every one in print. Editors are often parents too; they would not lose readers by editing this story with hearts as well as heads.
One of the less noble reasons why this trial has received so much coverage is our current obsession with crime as show business. It seems we can't resist programmes such as Crimewatch, in which drama and reality fuse in gripping entertainment. But there are times when this spills over into something akin to pornography. You can now buy magazines, mostly from America, which are filled entirely with stories of the most barbaric murder cases. Do we imagine their lists of subscribers are filled with Good Samaritans?
The one potential benefit of a case like this is that it forces us to take a good look at ourselves as adults. At the most superficial level we may feel braver about challenging children in the street about what exactly they are up to. At a more serious level we may ask whether a society can survive if it rips out its moral values and social structures and replaces them with a vacuum. You can be sure that those of us who turned away from the blood and the bricks will be thinking as hard as the rest.Reuse content