The Devil's Children...
When this really comes to the fore though is not when our children kill adults, but when children kill other children. In our modern society, the press go into overdrive as anyone can remember from the coverage of the murder of James Bulger and the reaction of Government and society to the proposed rehabilitation of Mary Bell via an autobiography. In a bizarre twist away from the view that prison rehabilitates and that a served sentence is the right to resume a life of kind, the modern view on child murderers seems to be that there is no hope of rehabilitation and that no sentence is long enough. It's almost as if these young children are the very embodiment of evil personified and that society cannot reconcile how young children can betray the hopes of youth by an act of murder.
Loretta Leach picks up on this point as a theme with her book, this is not merely a reconstruction of two major child murders of the 20th Century but rather a look at child murder through the ages and the changing views of society towards it. Initially, as with many lesser offences, society had no problem with routinely hanging young children as a matter of course for murder. This death sentence lasted well into the 19th Century, John Bell being the last child to ever hang for murder in 1831 at the age of 14. From this point on, reform was the key and it took one of two forms; reform institutions in the United Kingdom or transportation to Australia. Neither was ideal, and in some cases was actually thought to be a worse sentence than hanging.
Leach recounts a number of cases that involved children killing other children, explaining the circumstances of the case, the social background to the killings and also society's views before, during and after each case. This allows the reader to not just get an idea of what happened but also why it may have happened and what the impact of such murders had on society as a whole. Until the epilogue, Leach offers no opinions on any of the cases, simply recounting what her research has found and allowing the reader to make up their own minds.
What I found was that my opinions changed, albeit with some difficulty. I found myself drawn into the social conditions prevalent at the time and found myself being amazed at how much adults have used children as cheap babysitting labour, sometimes leaving children as young as ten in charge of young children. Although that age has increased over the years and the babysitter is not deemed to be automatically criminally responsible under the age of 16, young children are still the easy alternative to organised childcare. This doesn't by any means excuse as a matter of course the actions of the likes of Mary Bell, Jon Venables or Robert Thompson but I find that I can't actually view them as evil personified despite the fact that all three were involved in the murder of quite random murder rather than targeted as you would see with babysitters.
I find that society as a whole is being more and more intolerant and pays lip service to the idea of rehabilitation, regardless of the crime. I suspect that this is a backlash against the idea of a politically correct society that has been pushed at us since the 1960's from the idea of non-competitive sports to appeasing minority cultures despite their not wanting special treatment. I would also like to make it clear that I don't actually believe that this view of a PC society is wholly accurate either, but it accounts for the feelings of helplessness and anger when events bring the likes of these children to the fore and mob rule ascends again. As this book also shows, sometimes Government (both Conservative and New Labour) can play to that public mood as well.
This is a great book that doesn't attempt to influence you in any overt way but rather just allows you to come to your own conclusions. I suspect that there is a huge swathe of the population who wouldn't change their minds in the slightest, whilst all I can think is 'there but for the grace of god…'
Thought-provoking and very interesting.