In 1993, two year old James Bulger from Kirkby near Liverpool was abducted, tortured and murdered by two ten year olds, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. The horrific case provoked understandable revulsion from the general public. Politicians gleefully seized on it to further their own agendas.
Then Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair promised that a Labour government would be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, marking the beginning of New Labour’s attempts to outflank the Conservatives to the right on ‘law and order’, which had long been considered the Tory Party’s own territory. John Major responded by declaring that Britain should “condemn a little more, and understand a little less”. As we know, once in power, Blair focused on the first clause of his soundbite.
Perhaps for Merseysiders in particular, our horror was not at the killing itself, but that we now lived in a society that could produce such ‘monsters’ (as they were routinely labelled by the media). I was only ten – the same as Thompson and Venables – but I remember that my mum still warned me to be “extra careful” on the streets. Fear stalked the land.
Eighteen years later, and Venables is in the news again, because he is back in prison accused of an undisclosed crime, and the government is refusing to reveal his new identity. The tabloid press is engaged in a kind of race to the bottom of the profitable hypocrisy pit, whipping up hatred of the twenty-seven year old for what he did as a child, whilst cheering on “our boys” as they slaughter their way through Afghanistan. At the time of writing, emails and texts are flying around, claiming to ‘out’ Venables, while the ‘I HOPE JON VENABLES GETS TORTURED IN PRISON THIS TIME ROUND!‘ Facebook group has more than ten thousand members.
In the face of such a right-wing tidal wave, it can be very difficult for communists to make an intervention, even in conversation with friends and co-workers who are of the ‘hanging is too good for him’ mentality. Many people are very passionate about this issue, and to disagree with them on a reasonable basis can be confused for siding with child abuse.
Obviously, there is no easy answer to the question: ‘Why did Robert Thompson and Jon Venables kill James Bulger?’, but then the question has rarely been asked in any seriousness, as something other than a rhetorical device. It is not ‘making excuses’ to point out that they grew up in a city that was bearing the brunt of Thatcher’s offensive against the working class. This put enormous strain on many poor families. Jon Venables’ parents were separated. His brother and sister attended special needs schools, and his mother suffered psychiatric problems. After his parents’ separation, Jon reportedly became isolated and attention-seeking. At school he would regularly bang his head on walls or slash himself with scissors. Apparently none of this was treated, and the state’s first major intervention into Venables’ life was to lock him away.
Here, the objection will be raised that similar things could be said about many young children, and yet they don’t commit murder. Again, this is an attempt to derail the argument by setting up a ‘straw man’ – a deliberate misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. Of course, by themselves, such circumstances don’t automatically produce such dramatically anti-social behaviour, but they greatly increase the risk of it, as well as any number of negative life outcomes. Also, it (in)conveniently ignores the fact that if Jon Venables’ – and countless other children’s – childhoods were blighted by a serious lack of various resources, then that is in of itself an indictment of capitalist society.
Despite the sadism and confusion vented in online forums (a classic on the Daily Mail website reads “We should have hung them when they were ten. Killing children is wrong and should be punished by death.”), it could certainly be argued that this depth of feeling comes from ‘a good place’. People generally don’t want horrible things to happen to children, and they want ‘something’ to be done to stop it. With their ‘war on terror’ and their full-to-bursting prisons, the rich and powerful have created a climate where sadistic brutality is promoted as a cure for sadistic brutality. This is of a piece with their neoliberal reforms of the last thirty-five years, and the postmodern death of ‘why?’ as a legitimate socio-political question.
The reversal of this has to be a priority for a new workers’ movement. We need to put the case for understanding society much more, and condemning individuals a lot less. We need to make clear that this is certainly not the same as believing that atrocities are okay, because that is the counter-argument that representatives of the ruling class will throw at us, even as they metaphorically wade through blood.