Each generation encounters a heinous crime that becomes a point of reference, and forms a part of that generation’s narrative. When the little James Bulger was brutally murdered, I was only a few years older than the perpetrators of this truly sickening crime. It shook a lot of us the young as well as the old, and it highlighted the deprivation and depravity of some people living in the UK. Many people in any given time and place think that the society is falling into pieces, but this felt real and close. It wasn’t happening in a far away land, but in a shopping centre and railway tracks.
It was a horrible crime, not just because of its brutality and the victim, but because of the perpetrators. The whole country had to contemplate whether children could be so evil, and act so wickedly. In human history, we encounter many examples of evil, and some of them committed by children, but no one expected such crimes to take place in Britain in the twilight of the twentieth century. There is something particularly disturbing and vile about children killing younger children. Naturally the two killers – known at that time as Jon Venables and Robert Thompson – were locked up.
There were calls to throw the keys away, and keep the duo locked up until they died. That’s an understandable sentiment. However, incarceration is as much about remorse, rehabilitation and redemption, as punishment and public security. With younger offenders, such as these ten-year-olds, it’s assumed that there’s a reasonable chance of rehabilitation. The fact that Venables is now recalled to prision does not mean young offenders cannot be rehabilitated. But it remains also the case that not all young offenders can be rehabilitated. Perhaps there are some people who cannot be rehabilitated, and they are evil pure and simple.
Upon reaching 18, they were released on licence. Now, after so many years, the person who used to be Jon Venables is recalled to prison. There have been many speculations about what he has done. All reports point to Venables committing a serious crime. Our old anxieties and anger are reawakened, and we are left wondering whether the balance between rehabilitation on the one hand, and punishment and public security on the other, has been right.