Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last week, you will have heard whispers about a notorious child criminal potentially reoffending and being sent back to the cage he grew up in, and to a system which clearly did an exemplary job of rehabilitating him.
So for the benefit of you, Osama, it is Jon Venables: one half of the duo whom tortured and murdered toddler James Bulger back in 1993. As a ghastly reminder, 10-year-old Venables and his similarly aged cohort Robert Thompson kidnapped two year old Bulger from a shopping centre while his mother was distracted, and led him down to a canal, where they threw paint in his face, beat him with bricks and an iron bar and forced batteries into his mouth and rectum, before discarding him on a railway line in a futile attempt at concealing their crime.

Of course, we can only act on hearsay, as we are not privy to the sensitive details of Venables’ alleged new crimes, as we are also not aware of his spanking new name, though you would have thought any private detective worth his salt could comfortably track down a face as striking as Venables. After all, your face does not morph into something alien when you grow up, unless he has had some tax-funded plastic surgery a la Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever.

There are rumours that Bulger’s grief-stricken mother did in fact track down Robert Thompson, but felt unable to approach him, and some would argue that she is the only person who should ever be granted knowledge of the two’s true identities, but this too raises questions about whether this would in fact offer any solace or closure at all to her. The woman is clearly serving a life sentence of remorse and hatred for her horrendous loss, often forgotten in the midst of lynch mobs baying for blood.

The Guardian discussed Venables’ and Thompson’s final parole hearings in 2001, in which it was outlined that Thompson appeared to be both the dominant character in the duo, and the one who had shown little remorse for his crimes. Bulger’s mother(Denise)’s lawyers had actually filed a report claiming that Thompson may in fact have been an undiagnosed psychopath, but this was apparently not accepted. By the time of their releases, both men had been educated and given great opportunities, such as attending Manchester United games in the case of Venables, which some may argue sends a message that perpetrators of horrific crimes can enjoy opportunities never afforded to their poverty-stricken but generally law-abiding contemporaries.

But returning to the original rumour of Venables’ reoffending in the form of child pornography, which if proved to be true, is quite incredible, in that is possibly the only offence with which Venables could conceivably rival the despicable nature of his previous crime. The mere suggestion that these allegations are true has brought out all of the usual anonymous and bellowing voices of retribution, suggesting that this is conclusive proof that we must know the pair’s secret identities (are they superheroes??) immediately.

But perhaps we should all take a moment and reflect on what this would mean, in the cold light of day. This ten year old grew up in poverty, with parents who seemingly split up and reconciled constantly; whose siblings both had special needs and garnered much attention, and who seemed to long for the unconditional friendship that Thompson seemed to offer. The fact that Thompson attempted to implicated Venables in order to safeguard himself during the interrogation makes a mockery of this one constant in his childhood. Most case studies published in the major nationals indicate that Thompson was most likely the ringleader, and perhaps cajoled and bullied Venables into doing what he was told. After this excuse for a childhood, Venables sees out puberty behind bars, and is released into an unforgiving world, where he knows there is a clamour for his identity to be revealed, and for a mob to hunt him down and dispense vigilante justice. Knowing this, it is not particularly surprising to hear rumours of him turning to drink and drugs, to blank out the reality of his existence and the unimaginable cruelty he inflicted on a helpless toddler with his supposed friend 17 years ago.

Is rehabilitation really possible in cases as grave as these? Is it just a pipedream to imagine that children so disturbed as to carry out these atrocities can really be caged, educated and sent out to live a fulfilling, or at least, productive and non-threatening life within the kinds of communities they have destroyed with their actions? Do they even deserve this opportunity?

And then we come to the crux of the argument: is it right to release the pair’s true identities, allowing an inevitable double murder to occur? Would the ire of the public be satiated by carrying the two to the gallows, before slicing them open and greedily eviscerating them like ravenous zombies? Would this right a wrong? Or does this allow a group of deranged individuals project their own sadistic fantasies onto easy and apparently justified targets; murder without consequence?

The answer, of course, is that there is no answer. Nothing good can be accomplished, either by tearing the two apart in reparation, or pretending that their crimes are forgiven and forgotten. These are wasted lives spent in purgatory; forever looking over shoulders; forever requiring money for protection, rehabilitation, therapy and potentially re-institutionalising. We allow the two to continue to exist because there is no other option.

When justice is so difficult to derive, we can only look to the ‘live and let live’ adage. Every living creation has the right to exist for the length of their tenure on Earth free from judgment or persecution, but this freedom can only be guaranteed under the condition that these creations do not cause suffering or harm to the existences of others.

Proponents of mob justice may offer the argument that they do not wish death upon Venables and Thompson, merely a lifetime of suffering. But for the hundreds of thousands of pounds of tax it costs just to spend their existences poking them with a barbed stick, would it not be more frugal merely to end their, and the Bulger family’s, suffering? And of course, is it not offensive to discuss human lives in terms of taxpayers’ subsidies? Surely the only truth we can derive from this whole sordid mess is that the cost of cruelty is incalculable. It breeds resentment, hatred and dulls feelings and moral compasses to the extent that the murder of innocence becomes literal, as well as figurative. ‘Doli Incapax’ becomes a baffling conundrum.

Or, as is stated so succinctly:

“The violent child is the most potent image of violated innocence that we have. If humankind is capable of this, then perhaps we are beyond redemption.” – Ian McEwan


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