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The 20th anniversary of James Bulger's death: a tragic episode and its shameful legacy

British society has become so morally distanced from childhood that it has lost the ability to make a moral distinction between it and adulthood

Frank Furedi
Tuesday 12 February 2013 07:00 GMT
(Getty Images)

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the senseless killing of two year-old James Bulger by two boys, who were 10 years of age.

The tragic legacy of this horrific murder continues to haunt British society. The immediate response of British society to this shocking event was an understandable sense of revulsion. But regrettably this very human reaction swiftly mutated into one of moral disorientation.

Policy makers, politicians and media commentators played a critical role in inciting this response. Their histrionic and scaremongering response to this event served to distort the perception of the wider public. As a result this unique and thankfully very rare occurrence was widely perceived as a danger that threatened children throughout the land.

The Sun took the lead by demanding a ‘crusade to rescue a sick society’. The call for moral crusade resonated with other accounts that coupled their condemnation of ‘feral’ and ‘evil’ children with the diagnosis that Britain had become a ‘broken society’. The Economist captured this mood of moral confusion when it observed that Britain was ‘examining the dark corners of its soul’. Unfortunately there was very little serious examining. Instead of examination and reflection, opportunistic moralisation dominated public life.

Indeed one of the most sordid dimension of the response to the murder of James Bulger were the opportunistic attempts to promote causes and political agenda through linking it with the concern provoked by this event. Moral entrepreneurs presented this crime as a justification for promoting their campaign to ban violent videos or to lower the age criminal responsibility.

Labour went on the offensive and accused the Tories of responsibility for creating a ‘Broken Britain’. In turn Conservative politicians reacted to this tragedy by denouncing the underclass culture that breeds feckless parents and feral children in urban Britain. In effect the Bulger case became a focus for political exploitation.

"By the time Jon Venables and Robert Thompson faced a court of justice they had been demonised to the point that it was easy to forget that they were children"

By the time that the two youngsters – Jon Venables and Robert Thompson – faced a court of justice they had been demonised to the point that it was easy to forget that they were children. In what was an unprecedented step the two 11 year-olds were dragged into an adult court and treated as if they were mature individuals capable of exercising the kind of moral responsibility normally associated with adulthood. In their wisdom the courts allowed the name and photographs of the children to be published by the press thereby putting faces to these targets of venomous hate.

For me the most disquieting moment is this shameful episode was when I read the summing up of the case against the two children by the trial judge Mr Justice Morland. The killing of James Bulger was ‘an act of unparalleled evil and barbarity’ concluded the judge. These carefully crafted words not only communicated the idea that the killing committed by these two children was an act of evil but also suggested that it was also ‘unparalleled’ and therefore worse than the terrible deeds perpetrated by adults. The conviction and sentencing of the two children provoked a reaction that a civilised society usually reserves for hardened war criminals. ‘How do you feel now, you little bastards?’ asked the Daily Star while the headline of the Daily Mirror stated ‘Freaks of Nature’.

One regrettable and long term consequence of the transformation of the trial into a medieval passion play was that it fostered a climate of opinion where the age of criminal responsibility could be steadily lowered to the point where the distinction between act of a child and adult lost much of its meaning. Since this trial, the age of criminal responsibility has been steadily lowered. British courts now regard children as young as 10 as bearing moral responsibility for the most serious of crimes. In contrast most European systems of justice set the age of criminal responsibility at 14, 16 – even 18.

Promoting parental paranoia

Research into the British media's reporting showed the case had a major impact on parents. In a survey of 1,000 parents taken a year after the killing, 97 per cent cited the possible abduction of their children as their greatest fear. The Times reported that many of these parents revealed that 'video images of the two-year-old being taken by his killers were still fresh in their minds'. But this event did not simply intensify parental anxiety. Possibly the most depressing legacy of the febrile atmosphere surrounding the killing of James Bulger and the subsequent trial and demonization of Venables and Thompson was its distortion of the meaning of childhood. The demonisation of so-called feral youngsters did not merely exaggerate the scale of violence facing children, but also raised fundamental questions about the state of childhood.

‘What has happened to children’ was the question recurrently posed by the media and public figures. After the trial of the child culprits, The Sunday Times observed that we will ‘never be able to look at our children in the same way again’. It added, ‘all over the country, parents are viewing their sons in a new and disturbing light’. It was as if suddenly adults did not quite know what made their children tick. What this reaction signalled was not that parents feared that their children were murderers in the making. What it reflected was a sense of estrangement – do we really know them? Such sentiments were particularly directed at other people’s children. Since the Bulger case parental anxieties directed towards stranger-danger have been extended to the threat posed by dangerous and violent children.

The most significant legacy of the panic surrounding the Bulger case was to reinforce the pre-existing trend towards the privatisation of parenting. All too often ‘other’ children are perceived as competitors or as threats to one’s child. In recent years these perceptions have been reinforced by the actions of policy makers who are literally intent on criminalising infants. As a result we now live in a Britain where a 10 and an 11 year-old boys can be hauled before the Old Bailey and tried for rape. The Daily Mail headline ‘Criminals aged just 3: Children responsible for hidden crimewave, including rape and vandalism... and there's nothing police can do’ sums up the belief that society is confronted with an infant crime wave.

Conservative MP Philip Davies, insists that criminals are becoming more ‘precocious’ and that policemen are increasingly concerned about younger criminals. The good MP is all for lowering the age of criminal responsibility and dragging even more children before adult courts: ‘People take the view that if they are old enough to commit the crime, they are old enough to take responsibility.’

British society has become so morally distanced from childhood that it has lost the ability to make a moral distinction between it and adulthood. It looks upon adults as simply biologically mature children, and children as physically underdeveloped grown-ups. This leads to a tragic state of affairs where children’s behaviour is continually interpreted through the prism of adult imaginations. At its worst, contemporary British culture attributes adult motives to children’s behaviour. Consequently, even infants in nurseries are told off for their ‘harassment’ of other kids or for their ‘racist’ behaviour. We live in a world where six year-old children are expelled from school for inappropriate sexual behaviour, where a 10-year-old boy is put on the Sex Offenders’ Register for touching a girl, and where playing ‘doctors and nurses’ is increasingly interpreted as the precursor to an act of sexual violence.

Strangely the myth of the feral child coexists with the powerful counter-myth of the innocent child who is incapable of lying or wrong-doing. Both of these myths are the product of adult fantasy. Both of them express sentiments that fail to grasp the reality of children’s lives. Parents who are continually confronted with engaging and processing these highly polarised myths often become distracted from seeing children for what they are –just children. And that’s the shameful legacy of moral panic created in response to the tragedy of James Bulger.

Frank Furedi’s Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal is published by Palgrave Pivot this Spring.

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