It seems strange to me that I can only remember the James Bulger murder with a kind of floating vagueness. When I think back, all the news reports blur together, the same series of grainy stills from that shopping centre becoming the only common thread. Maybe it's my memory acting in retrospect to the grim importance of the images, but I have difficulty remembering other shoppers. I know they must have been there, but all which comes to my minds eye are the three boys, captured in fuzzy black and white, the two larger flanking the smaller.
I guess it's with a little surprise that I do not find it a particularly haunting scene. The only nameable sensation I can ascribe to it is detachment; an odd separation, the reasons for which, I do not yet understand.
The visual cues end here, at the shopping centre, the murder itself occurring offstage. Its record is in the voice of Venables and Thompson as they make their confessions to unbelieving parents and police. To hear them is disturbing, not for how they are, but for how we may react. The voices on the tapes are those of sobbing children, unable to cope with the pressures launched upon them in this most adult of situations. They cry, needing support, and I can remember, the first time I heard it, wondering if they were able to comprehend the situation they were in and the implications of their confessions. I don't think I was alone in this - the voices of their interrogators are of adults used to dealing with criminals and suspects, not sobbing ten year old boys. I do wonder who was the more pained in that room; interrogators or interrogated.
But how can I feel sorry for these boys? To take a life in cold blood is appalling in and of itself, but to take that of a child seems to go beyond that. And this time the crime goes still deeper. The child was killed by children. One innocent killed directly, the innocence of the two taken at the same moment. And despite all this, I hear their voices as they break down in their questioning and I feel sorry for them. Is it that I simply cannot make the connection between the tortuous death and the two crying ten year olds I hear on the tape? Perhaps I am so shallow that without the images to back it up, I cannot conceive of how evil they have been. The shopping centre I know about - I've seen the CCTV. The torture and murder I have to imagine based on what I have been told.
Maybe I'm being too hard. The crime for which the two are accused simply doesn't match their age. Isn't it one of the most human of things to believe in childhood innocence? But haven't these events shown me that childhood innocence is more to do with adult hopefulness than the reality of youthful minds? When I look out of my window and see children playing on street I can't help but wonder what thoughts and feelings really occur to them as they act. I sometimes find myself going through my own childhood events and memories, trying to use them as a door, attempting to discover the mindset or logic which Venables or Thompson might have had. But there's no such comparison to be made. I am too far removed, whether by circumstance or pretension. So much seems to divide me from the pair that the link of childhood fails to offer any explanation.
Empathy is proving difficult though. Both sides of the case escape me. The murders and mobs both. Once the trial started, so too came the crowds. Hundreds of people, their rage binding them, a mass who could feel nothing more than hatred for the two boys. I wonder if it is the lack of my own children to loose which draws me away from the seething mob. I feel no connection with these people, but I cannot help but wonder if I should. In this world, where we are constantly reminded that we no longer care for our neighbors, is it not a good symbol that this crowd is brought together in the horror of what has occurred to this stranger. But to see them quickly takes this thought from me. Without the police to hold them back, those people would have done to those two boys, what the boys had done to another.
I remember reading somewhere that one of the reasons for our legal system was to prevent victims dispensing vengeance over justice. But those faces surrounding the court room belonged not to victims but to the populus - people like me, unconnected with the crime and it's effects. And yet, without being victims, they were ready to dispense the victims vengeance. Justice as they saw fit.
How would the case have proceeded in America? Would we have played witness to the first child executions? And if we had, would this have stilled the rage of the spectators? But there is little point pondering on what may, when there is what could now happen. The two could soon be released. Perhaps they already have been. And with this comes the possibility, as promised by James Bulger's father, of two further murders. No longer of children, but of adults. The papers would have us believe they are demons, monsters in human form. Perhaps those writers could feel the detachment I felt, leading them to pull them apart from other people. But I cannot accept that - no matter how much I'd like to. I can't help feeling that it is my failing which separates me from them, my lack of understanding of the human psyche, rather than the distinction between humans which are capable and humans which are not. And despite all I've said above, two dead adults would still signify something too me equalling what would have been shown if the crowd had been allowed its vengeance on the pair of ten year olds.
I don't know if the two have suffered for their crime, and if they have not, I cannot comprehend what would have been adequate punishment. Further incarceration would achieve nothing more than has already been achieved - removal of the problem. It was easy to ignore the two when they were behind the closed prison walls. I only write this now, because I am reminded of what I once felt by their impending release. But now they might be back out, forcing us to look once again into a situation that we and the society which we've built was simply unable to know how to cope with.
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