On 12 February 1993, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, two 10 year old boys approached a two-year old toddler, James Bulger, in a shopping centre in Liverpool. They took him by the hand and led him on a long walk that ended some two hours later on wasteland by a railway track. There they subjected the infant to the most unspeakable of cruelties, dousing him with paint, battering him with bricks, poking his eyes, before leaving him on the railway line to be cut in half by a train.
It was a horrific and inexplicable killing and one that has become embedded in British culture as a symbol, on the one hand, of irredeemable evil, and, on the one hand, of the moral decay of the nation. The judge at the subsequent trial, Lord Justice Morland, described the killing as an ‘act of unparalleled evil and barbarity’. Tony Blair, then the shadow Home Secretary, claimed that it was an ‘ugly manifestation of a society that is becoming unworthy of that name’.
It has also become a never-ending story. Every time a horror befalls a child, the ghost of James Bulger is resurrected, a reminder in many peoples’ eyes of the inherent evil that stalks the world. In 2001, when Venables and Thompson were released from custody, there was much national soul searching as to whether it was right for such boys ever to be set free.
This week the story has yet again returned to the headlines. Venables, now 27, has apparently been taken back into custody for committing an offence. Few people know the details. On release from prison, Venables and Thompson were given new identities so they could start life afresh without being constantly dogged by their past. Information about Venables’ alleged new crime has therefore been kept secret. That has not prevented a week of wild speculation about his offences. He has been accused of everything from pushing drugs to downloading child porn. The very secrecy surrounding Venables has created a national storm, with politicians, journalists and campaigners demand that the public has a ‘right to know’ about Venables’ latest misdeeds.
It is unlikely, though, even if the authorities were to make public every scrap of information they have on Venables, that the storm would abate. For the debate is not about insufficient information or even about a lack of justice. It is rather an expression of an almost pornographic fascination with replaying the Bulger case and of holding Venables and Thompson to account as irredeemably evil. The return of Venables into custody seems only to confirm many peoples’ belief that such children can never be redeemed or rehabilitated.
If the idea of incurable evil is one theme that haunts the Bulger story, that of the irrational mob is another. One of the iconic images of the Bulger case is that of a crowd of angry, almost hysterical, onlookers banging on the van transporting Venables and Thompson from the their trial. It’s an image that speaks of a lynch mob driven by primitive passions for vengeance and retribution. Many observers have contrasted the irrationality of the mob with the supposed humanity of politicians and judges. The authorities, one commentator wrote this week, have shown ‘admirable courage in the face of huge emotional pressure to be punitive.’
In reality, it was the authorities that began the process by which Venables and Thompson have become demonised. First, they decided to try the boys not as children but as adults. As a result the two became the youngest people in British legal history to be convicted of murder.
In most civilized countries, the law recognizes that there is an age below which children are incapable of adult reasoning and intentions. Prior to the Bulger case, the official age of criminal responsibility in Britain was 10, but the law also accepted that children younger than 14 could not distinguish right from wrong in the same way an adult could. That presumption was set aside in the case of Venables and Thompson and, five years later, officially erased from the statute books. British law now assumes that 10 year old children can reason and make moral judgments in the same way as can an adult.
In court cases involving children, names and identities are normally hidden from public view. Again, this practice was set aside in the case of Venables and Thompson. The judge allowed the names and photos of the two boys to be splashed all over the media. ‘How do you feel now, you little bastards?’, ran one newspaper headline.
Politicians, too, got in on the act. Society, the Prime Minister John Major said, needed to ‘condemn a little more, and understand a little less.’ The judge had sentence the boys to a minimum of eight years in prison. In 1994, the then Home Secretary Michael Howard raised the tariff to 15 years. The courts eventually returned the sentence to eight years, describing Howard’s intervention as a case of ‘institutionalised vengeance’. It is a good description, not just of Howard’s actions, but of the whole way in which Venables and Thompson were treated.
Venables and Thompson committed a wicked act. For that they should have been punished. But a civilized legal system would have accepted that as children, they were neither mature enough to form sophisticated moral judgements, nor possessed the experiences necessary to weigh up alternative moral behaviours. And a civilized society would accept that children who commit terrible acts, however depraved, can nevertheless grow up to be rational and reasonable adults. In failing to make the distinction between the moral consciousness of a child and that of an adult, the adults who have pronounced upon the Bulger case – the judges, the politicians, the journalists – have in effect themselves behaved like children.
The murder of James Bulger was an exceptional event that said little about the state of Britain. If anything throws light on the moral frailties of contemporary Britain it is not so much the murder as the response to it.