April 2010 Newsletter
Keith gives us an insight into the latest twist in the James Bulger murser 17 years ago.
". . .spare the rod, and spoil the child" is the well-known second line of a couplet by Samuel Butler - referring back to the Biblical Proverb Ch 14 v 24 - "he that spareth his rod hateth his son". Nowadays we are much less ready to invoke the rod, but the sentiment remains right and relevant. I think most parents understand that babies know little and can do little and depend on the wisdom and involvement of their parents. At some stage theses babies become mature adults and make their own decisions and do what they need to do themselves. In between is the process of development and the responsibility gradually shifts from parents to children - whether it is first tying their own shoelaces or buying their first pair of shoes with their own money.
Traditional village communities used to support parents - like extended families. Modern society tends to find that far more difficult to achieve and in crowded cities, children can be very much alone and unsupported.
The papers and news channels at present are full of the suggestions that criminal responsibility should not be applicable to children under 12 years of age and the rejection of that idea by the mother of the little boy murdered 17 years ago in Liverpool by two 10 year olds, who were tried and found guilty of murder.
I don't see how we can allow children to get away with bad behaviour without some sort of reaction. It is the fashion to look for reasons why people go the wrong way. Often those reasons can be found, but I think there is a tendency to confuse "a reason why" with "an excuse for". There are often very strong reasons why I do things badly or don't do things I should do, but there is very rarely a good excuse for my poor behaviour. I don't actually believe that it was possible for a normally intelligent 9 or 10 year boy brought up in Liverpool in the '80s not to have known that it was fundamentally wrong to attack and hurt a 2 year old child. If I am right, then no amount of explanation of difficult upbringing can excuse the behaviour. It follows that something had to be done to bring this home to the perpetrators - the consequences could not be only for the victim and the victim's family - there had to be consequences for them also.
For some, the appropriate consequences would have been a course of re-education, especially in civic responsibility. Others, at the other extreme, might have called for the death penalty! At one extreme is simple, pure rehabilitation - at the other, punishment and retribution. This is not a new debate and a complex society has a third concern, which is the safety and security of its members - sometimes we judge that society at large has to be protected from dangerous individuals by incarcerating them, whether or not they are responsible for their own actions.
So, it is very difficult and confusing to come up with a general policy that all can understand and that is applicable to most (let alone all) circumstances. This is made more confused when we are looking at children. In this 21st century west European country, the vast majority of us would probably agree that 5 year olds have no criminal responsibility, although they should already be getting a good idea of the difference between right and wrong. We might all agree that 18 year olds must take full responsibility for their actions.
Law tends to have to be black and white - you are on one side or the other - it is difficult to introduce nuances. The current debate is about the two 10 year olds who were imprisoned 17 years ago and released when they were 18 years old. The period of imprisonment, we are told, was a period of re-habilitation. It was presumably meant to be punishment also, but one supposes that the punishment consisted only in the loss of liberty and home life with no other form of material deprivation. It is distinctly possible that they will have had a better life than previously.
So, although I understand the principle of the current debate I am not sure whether it actually comes down to anything very much, in the end. What seems to me to have been wrong, both 17 years ago and now, is the feverish coverage of the matter in the media - and just as much so the publicity given to the views of the mother of the murdered child, who has the best excuse in the world for being biased, who quite honestly needs sympathy and counseling, not publicity. Also, the acts of a 10 year old, however much it can be maintained that he knew what he was doing, are still different in some sort of way to similar acts by a 30 year old.
So perhaps the debate actually comes down simply to the public aspect of the initial "trial", which could be identically handled on a technical front, whether or not labeled as "criminal" AND to the nature of the subsequent incarceration, whether called "imprisonment" or something else. In the long run, maybe the only difference is in the fact of having or not having a "criminal" record. It is not clear why the quality of the re-habilitation (and the subsequent behaviour) should be different either way.
I started with a well known but unfashionable quote and a cross reference to Jewish and Christian Scripture. But the key is not parental punishment but parental responsibility. As parents, we are responsible for how our children turn out. We are responsible for applying appropriate restraints when appropriate, such as insisting on holding their hands when crossing crowded roads at some, but not all, of the ages of childhood. Ultimately our main responsibility is to love our children so much that they become responsible to us - and thus responsive to us. Jesus said "Suffer the little children to come unto me" - let children come to the personification of love - and it is for us get as close as we can to an emulation of that personification.
Licensed Lay Minister