I venture once again into Venables territory. When Jon Venables was last in the cross-hairs of the media’s AK47 it was all about the “right” of his victim’s mother to know what the charges were going to be. You’ll remember that I took a dim view of that argument. Now the hot topics are whether or not the probation service did their job properly, and about whether the perpetrator’s new identity should now be revealed. I intend to tackle neither of them.
Rather, I’m simply going to reflect on what we’ve learned through all this long, 17-year, tragic drama. And the answer, it seems to me, is absolutely nothing that we didn’t know all too well before.
We’ve learned that if very small children are treated with appalling neglect and brutality, they might well be seriously damaged. A new insight? Hardly.
We’ve learned that there is no limit to the potential of human beings to inflict pain and death on one another. I think we knew that already as well.
We’ve learned that if you inflict the indescribable pain of having her small son tortured and beaten to death, then you’re likely to end up with a mother that is angry and vengeful. Again, hardly news.
We’ve learned that if an already damaged child is then incarcerated and institutionalised, the prognosis for restoring that child to health is bleak indeed. News to anyone?
We’ve learned that the adolescent and the young adult that emerges from all that trauma is very likely to seek relief in alcohol and drugs. Amazing.
We’ve learned that the guilt and stress of living an outward lie whilst knowing the inward truth breeds isolation and despair. Surely not.
We’ve learned that the spirit for vengeance and punishment is frighteningly powerful, and that it takes very little effort to stoke it into brutal expression. I don’t think this is an exactly revolutionary discovery.
In other words, all we’ve learned is that causes have effects. When the causes are deep and multifarious then of course the effects may be expressed via a circuitous route and be long delayed. But that merely complicates. One of those complications is that the effects will not be mechanically predictable, and they may not be inevitable. There will not be the satisfyingly obvious link between cause and effect that there is when I hit a nail with a hammer. It will be more like the web of causes and effects that leads me and that particular hammer to come together. There will have been many other ways in which those causes might have played out that would not have found me holding that specific implement.
So it is no argument to say that there are many abused little children who do not go on to smash another child’s brains out, and that therefore Jon Venables must have been, and must still be, intrinsically evil. Indeed, Robert Thompson, his accomplice, appears not to have been damaged by his post-conviction life in the same ways, or with the same consequences, as Jon Venables clearly has been. It may seem churlish to say it, but it’s also true that there are other mothers, equally cruelly deprived of their children, who have not been as unable as James Bulger’s has been to move past anger and recrimination. We are all different. But that’s not news either.
And it’s certainly not news that the tabloid press in this country is depraved and despicable, and that cases like this are the most vivid reminders of that fact.
I suppose, also, it’s not news that individually and as a society we are so incapable of learning from what we already know so emphatically.