The murder of hope?

As If
October 17, 1997

Given the amount of unsupervised time the young spend in each other's company, the murder of children by children is extremely rare. This in itself should be cause for some optimism when it is remembered that psychoanalytic writers from Sigmund Freud to Melanie Klein have written luridly about children's occasionally murderous feelings towards siblings and even parents themselves. As if in confirmation, fairy tales and legends abound with stories where older children try to kill the youngest. Fortunately for humanity, this particular gap between fantasy and reality remains a wide one.

No one, however, should ever take the existence of this strong inhibition too much for granted. In certain extreme circumstances, most children can behave wickedly. The boy soldiers in different parts of postwar Africa killed and committed atrocities, at times with every appearance of pleasure. Writing in The Gulag Archipelago about his experience in a Soviet labour camp, Solzhenitsyn describes the child inmates there as "the worst kind of beasts, with no ethical concepts whatever...the weaker their victims, the more merciless were the kids". These children were sometimes only 12 years old. Even in everyday Britain, games between children can occasionally go that step too far. As an educational psychologist, I was once asked to interview an 11-year-old who while suspending a smaller child over a river as a "joke" dropped him to his death. Accident, as claimed, or deliberate?

The Bulger murder on February 12 1993 was particularly horrible because there was no excuse of a game gone wrong. Nor was there evidence of any previous systematic conditioning of the two young killers into deviant attitudes where murder became an end in itself. They had no record of bullying, were not known to be wild or dangerous, and were of average intelligence. They killed James for no reason, and walked or dragged him along for over two miles in order to do so. The murder itself was protracted and pitiless; James "kept getting up" the boys said later. "He wouldn't stay down". After the murder, both boys showed no obvious distress nor made any voluntary confession, until this was finally wrung out of one of them after hours of police questioning and the production of undeniable forensic evidence.

Shock at the spectacle of ten-year-olds acting with such unmotivated callousness produced a torrent of journalism during the trial. Books followed more slowly, but Blake Morrison's As If is now at hand to provide a thoughtful and moving study of this whole dreadful story. It was a high-risk enterprise to send a poet who specialises in autobiography to a setting where not just two children but the whole nature of childhood was on trial. But where he could have been self-referring and emotional, Morrison tackles head-on some of the fundamental questions many academics would probably rather avoid.

If the object of the trial was to appease public anger while offering a strong warning to any other potentially murderous ten-year-olds, then it succeeded. But as a forum for discovering why such an appalling thing happened, it was useless. Morrison can therefore only speculate about evidence that was never heard. In other West European countries a juvenile court sitting in camera would have been able to assess psychiatric and social work evidence as fully as possible before coming to a conclusion and settling on terms of punishment. In Britain, given that this was a criminal trial, the entire burden of the trial fell on deciding whether the boys had actually committed the crime of which they were accused. Questions of motivation or personality were disregarded; the psychiatrist who had interviewed one of them spoke for barely five minutes.

After the trial was over, the jury foreman said in a radio broadcast that the verdict should have been guilty but with diminished responsibility.

Morrison's own belief is somewhat similar: that the boys knew what they were doing, but also did not know at the same time, in his view "the condition of being ten". He was struck by how small they looked in court, making the rails of the dock look like the bars of a playpen. This was not the only reminder of their extreme youth. When Jon Venables first admitted to killing James, his next comment was "What about his Mum? Will you tell her I'm sorry?" This is more the language and understanding of someone who has broken a window, not murdered a child. Later, on a familiarisation trip to the court, one boy was photographed sucking a lollipop. On a previous occasion when the boys were first charged they were met by rocks and eggs from an angry crowd, some demanding death for the children who had themselves killed a child. A few concessions to their immaturity were made; the court always rose at 3.30pm, allowing them the same time span as a school day.

When passing sentence the judge suggested that exposure to violent films may in part be an explanation for the boys' behaviour. This led to the Association of Video Retailers withdrawing Child's Play 3 from their shelves, a film that has some superficial resemblance to the details of the Bulger murder. It is not certain that either boy saw this film, but this was a line that surely warranted further investigation.

Television and video programmes that are obsessed with crime and violence present a picture of a fairly mean world to the young. For those children who suffer bullying or worse in their families, and who cannot therefore turn to their own homes as a secure base from which to distance themselves from such programmes, it may not be surprising if a few of them emerge feeling dangerously violent in a world of violence. There is no proven link between screen and actual violence, and it is easy to make fun of the more heroic role models who once used to populate children's fiction and films. But if some children are exposed to many more negative than positive experiences in their viewing, it is hard to argue that this will necessarily have no direct effect, certainly upon the more vulnerable of them.

The whole Bulger episode led to far-reaching public anxiety about children in general. A Liverpool father erroneously gave up his own son as one possible murderer. When the police showed the infamous video clip of James's abduction on television's Crimewatch in an appeal for more information, there were 36 phone calls suggesting different children as possible kidnappers, only one of which proved to be right.

For Morrison, this was like the murder of hope itself, the killing of "not just a child but the idea of childhood, and all its happy first associations". With so much at stake - for what could be more important in any society than the way we view all our children? - the Bulger trial was an abrogation of a greater responsibility to find out as much as possible and then consider what all this might say about contemporary childhood experience itself.

Nicholas Tucker is lecturer in developmental psychology, University of Sussex.

As If

Author - Blake Morrison
ISBN - 1 86207 003 2
Publisher - Granta
Price - £14.99
Pages - 245

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