Who would have stopped little James?

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The Independent Online
THE KILLING of little James Bulger has cast the darkest of shadows over this grimmest of weeks. Even though the bald and terrible facts of his death in February were already well known before the trial started, familiarity has not diminished the sense of shock. With each day's court report comes a mounting sense of horror as the graphic details are piled up. So much so that many people, myself included, can hardly bring themselves to read about it. Human kind, as T S Eliot wrote, cannot bear very much reality.

While the trial is still progressing, it would be wrong to comment on the case. But I have been trying to put myself in the shoes of any of the numerous people who saw James being dragged by two boys on his walk to death on the railway line. They will be asking themselves for the rest of their lives why they didn't realise the mortal danger he was in and why they didn't intervene decisively to save him.

Or why the alarm wasn't sounded even earlier, in the crowded and run-of-the-mill Liverpool shopping centre, when two boys were thwarted in their efforts to lure away another two-year-old from the protection of his mother. For this was a protracted drama, played out during broad daylight, over two miles, in a populated urban area where people have a long and spunky tradition of helping each other out.

The truth, of course, is that no one had the foresight to challenge two schoolboys, take charge of James, and return him safely to his parents via the police, because the crime committed is so unusual. You would have needed exceptional qualities to have anticipated this tragedy.

While we may have absorbed the fictional lessons of Lord of the Flies and accepted William Golding's thesis that children (especially boys) can act in sickening and bullying ways, such extreme cruelty, meted out in this case to so small a child, is rare - and at the very boundaries of immoral behaviour. Even in an age when children have access to video nasties, and random acts of violence disfigure everyday life, the death of a two-year-old catches adults off guard. It strikes me as significant that the most forthright challenge came from a 12-year-old boy, who, unclouded by any sentimental thoughts about childhood, bluntly told the two boys that he would batter them if they didn't give James back to his parents.

Our reactions are conditioned by the current torrent of stories about domestic cruelty and sexual abuse carried out by adults on children. Drunken fathers who shake babies to death in fits of rage, step-parents who beat, starve and scald defenceless children, irresponsible baby-sitters who leave babies alone, tied to their cots, nurses who murder sick children left in their care, paedophile rings that take pleasure from killing young boys, and frightened young mothers who desert new-born babies. But children killing children?

Frankly, and it is not easy to write this, before James Bulger I doubt whether I would have had the bottle to intervene in a similar circumstance, though I sincerely hope I would see the danger signs now. Alarm bells would only have rung if I had spotted a toddler being obviously mistreated and beaten by an adult. If it is any comfort to the eye witnesses, I suspect that in this specific case I also would probably have concluded that James was their little brother, if only because it is fairly common to see larger children shepherding around their younger siblings. I have also had plenty of experience of dragging reluctant two-year-olds in tantrums home from the park, and know that sometimes you have to manhandle them.

Anyone who has ever been shopping with a two-year-old will also recognise the problem of keeping track of a high-spirited toddler. The video cameras caught James taking some Smarties minutes before he was abducted; last Friday cameras could have caught my small child rushing for the salt and vinegar crisps while my back was turned. That is why it is not uncommon for children and parents to become separated. And why it is the norm for kindly adults and older children to guide lost children back towards their parents.

I am not seeking to minimise the terrible facts of James Bulger's death. Nor to pre-empt the sense of self-examination that will inevitably and rightly follow such a dire act as we try to cope and learn. But let us keep a sense of proportion. This terrible crime is so heart-rending precisely because it is rare and extreme. Our children are not turning into a race of unrestrained monsters, though individuals may be. James died not because nobody cared but because our defences were down. Mine are up now.

(Photograph omitted)