Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Why surrendering to reaction benefits nobody

The Attourney General, Lady Scotland, is to review the sentencing handed down to the Edlington "torture brothers." The two, aged 10 and 11 at the time of the offence, were given an indeterminate sentence of at least five years for "prolonged sadistic violence" against two other children. The sentence provoked outrage as "too soft," with the parents demanding that the boys' anonymity be removed, and campaigners saying that "the minimum tariffs were too short."

According to BBC News, "pressure group Phoenix Survivors, which campaigns for justice for victims of childhood sexual abuse, said it had already appealed over the minimum tariff "on the grounds that it is unduly lenient"." Tabloid propaganda against the idea of rehabilitation has already begun, with the Daily Express telling us that "the feral young savages who almost ­tortured two boys to death could cost ­taxpayers £5million in round-the-clock efforts to rehabilitate them," whilst the Daily Mail's urges "name the Devil Boys: We must not let them hide," and the Sun repeats the victims' father's claim that "they will kill if released."James Bulger's mother Denise has told Sky News that "if they are not named, it means they have got away with it and that is completely wrong."

Such a kneejerk reaction is entirely understandable. This was a truly appalling crime, more so because it was committed not only against children, but also by children. However, understandable though it may be, such a reaction ultimately helps nobody.

In the first instance, surrendering to hysteria only impairs our ability to understand why it occurred in the first place, which is vital to making sure that it never happens again. Easy though it may be to label these boys as "evil" or "monsters," it is hyperbole, not an explanation. People are not born with a fully-eveloped and unalterable personality at birth, and only the derranged would label newborns as "good" or "evil." People are the product of their upbringing and surroundings, and if we are to look at this issue seriously, we need to look at exactly what that meant for the "torture brothers."

The Belfast Telegraph offers us a telling snapshot;
They grew up in a toxic household, witnesses to violence and abuse which no children should ever have to see. Their father was an alcoholic, their mother a habitual user of drugs grown by their father in his allotment.

They were beaten regularly, allowed to watch violent horror and pornographic films and given drugs at night to keep them quiet. Their lives knew no boundaries; they lived in an atmosphere that even the most imaginative Hollywood horror movie-maker could scarcely imagine.
Such upbringings have had equally dramatic effects before. In December 2004 Stephen West, son of serial killers Fred and Rose West, was jailed for nine months for grooming and having under-age sex with a fourteen year old girl. As the Daily Mirror recounted almost a year later, he "was beaten as a child and unwittingly made to dig his sister Heather's grave in the back garden." He "had one of the most traumatic and distressing childhoods one can imagine" and two years before his conviction, "he tried to hang himself but survived when the rope snapped."

As Johann Hari notes, "his childhood doesn't make his behaviour acceptable - he is a human being with free will - but it adds a hint of moral complexity to our firebomb-tossing, naming-and-shaming rage."

Of course, such arguments will not sway the hysterics. Indeed, any reading this will already have switched off and condemned me as "making excuses" for society's demons. In Hari's words, "few of us want to see shades of grey, especially when it comes to something as visceral as defending our children." But if we don't examine those shades of grey, and the moral complexities within, then the safety of children will take a backseat to rage and a primal demand for blood retribution.

The release of James Bulger's killers, John Venables and Robert Thompson, with new identities provoked much outrage in Britain. However, as the Guardian points out, "if there is a precedent for the reform and rehabilitation of child criminals publicly assumed to be intrinsically evil and beyond help, then it comes in the form of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson." Despite popular perception that the two have "gotten away with it," they left prison "equipped with A-levels and an ability to speak fluently about emotions and remorse."
Peter Minchin, head of placements at the Youth Justice Board, is utterly correct when he says that in a decent society "you can't wash your hands of people who are still so young," and "you can't throw away the key." If those who commit such acts can be made to feel remorse for them and be rehabilitated, then it should be done. That, after all, is a key element of restorative justice.

But, as the reactionaries will no doubt cry, what about the children? The victims can't get this second chance, so why should the perpetrators?

Leaving aside the broader fact that vengeance is not justice, there are practical reasons why they should. In rehabilitation, we learn what it is that drives people to commit the most horrendous of attrocities. These children will, as the Express so furiously recounted, "spend their days having one-to-one tuition from teachers trained to deal with pupils who have fallen behind in their learning, effectively getting a top-class ­private education tailored to their needs." The key element in this is psychiatric, and as such they will "benefit from the “blueprint” that proved so successful with the Bulger killers."

But so will other children. In learning more about such cases as these brothers, we learn about the factors that create them and the motives that drive them. These facts are vital if we want to be able to recognise children like this before they offend, and to offer them treatment and rehabilitation without having to wait for others to get hurt or killed in the interim. Unfortunately, a focus on preventive measures, on recognising tand dealing with this threat before it causes harm, is something that rarely gets discussed in mainstream discourse. Like so many other things, it is lost in the frenzied demands for punishment and vengeance.

This is why, if we want children to be safer, and such outrages to occur less,we must actively challenge reaction and hysteria. As well as utterly dehumanising those who surrender to it, it amounts to a deliberate negligence of child welfare.