Putting the World to Rights

By way of a twisted anniversary celebration, Twitter and other usual outlets are fanning the flames of the murder of Jamie Bulger by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. At the time of the murder, twenty years ago this week, the two killers were barely eleven years old. The ongoing debates from the case are little different to those which bother letter writers and phone-in shows today; the death penalty, parenting, responsibility of children in the eyes of the law, influence of violent programming, and whether convicted criminals should be allowed to have a life beyond prison.

To mark the anniversary of this gruesome crime, there has been another spate of alleged photographs shared of Jon Venables. The photograph joins many others which have not, and may never be, verified. They are shared around with one of many different intentions  – a warning to him as much as others, a gleeful ‘target’ to locate like a clue in some weird manhunt gameshow. With a new name and new identity, Venables continues to be tracked down in the name of justice and revenge, as the chosen symbol by a generation scarred by his actions. For as long as he remains free, he remains chased.

Whoever the photograph actually shows, as it may not be the now 30 years-old Jon Venables, the face has been reduced to a meme, sentenced to life as a Facebook status, website warning, messageboard icon. The photograph is also, if it is him, illegal to share, making those who do liable for contempt of court charges. 
I’ve seen both the ‘new’ photograph and a montage of others which might, or might not, show the face of Jon Venables. He looks ordinary, normal, a bloke who could work in a garage during the week and behind the bar on weekends. He could resemble any number of blokes his age, and indeed does. For people who may only be thirteen years old today, the age I was at the time of the murder, he would pass them in the street without causing a flicker of recognition. 
As it might be obvious to regular readers, I believe revenge is not justice. I’m always wary of chasing after criminals long after their time is spent.  I dare say even most ardent Christians would struggle to rest their hands upon them in prayer, and I certainly don’t feel comfortable reliving the details of the case, but for people now to demand life-long sentences strikes me as uncomfortable and illogical. There is no understanding the reasons for killing Jamie Bulger. though incomprehension at the lack of humanity is no good cause to hound someone around the world in the name of ‘justice’. 
You don’t bring back the death penalty on the back of a trending topic.

When Jamie Bulger was found murdered on the railway tracks south of Bootle, the atmosphere at my High School was icy, uncomfortable, heavy. A teacher mishearing some boys sharing a joke, one of them me, began berating us for disrespect and offensiveness. Her eyes were red from fresh crying. She may have still been crying as she admonished us for cracking up in laughter on the day so many felt their hearts break.

I’m not someone who denies the power of Twitter to get into the shadowy corners of life, tracking down injustice or just poking a sharp stick into places which long felt protected from ‘the little people’. I celebrate the Internet and its power in swimming against the tide. It’s a right for people to feel empowered and strengthened.

However this doesn’t mean that anarchic mob-rule can be allowed to flourish in the name of ‘justice’. Hunting down Jon Venables is not acceptable behaviour. He’s been caught and jailed since his release, and has since left jail to live another life with a fake name and back-story. Justice caught up with him twice, and may do again. It doesn’t need crowds of Twitter users who believe themselves above all and every law to track him down for no purpose. What ultimate consequence do people want? To find him and kill him? Lock him away in an attic somewhere? To drag him to a police station under the accusation of being a lifelong criminal walking the streets?

Is it “justice” being sought, or “revenge”? What kind of catharsis do people seek when they identify a killer’s alleged identity in defiance of the law?

Whilst in London earlier this year, I overheard a couple (jaw-droppingly good looking bloke, infeasibly attractive woman) talking in academic tones over coffee and an iPad. The conversation dealt with her view that people had “visceral fears”, and how her study into the subject had shone light on the prejudices which come from nurture as much as nature. I remembered this conversation for some time – not least because it’s rare to hear someone use the word “visceral” in real life. There will never be peace for the parents of Jamie Bulger, or any of the parents whose children were killed in the years before or since. There will never be peace for the killers, either, whose lives will always be tethered to their crime, whose names and faces will be plastered on-line as virtual “Wanted” posters.

If it is human nature to be prejudiced against injustice, if it is human nature to hold a visceral fear, we’ll never be free from the mob rule chasing justice. I’m uncomfortable with the conclusions of all this.

Revenge is not Justice

Following the imprisonment of Roy Whiting for the murder of Sarah Payne, a friend and I had something of a disagreement over what was already being labelled “Sarah’s Law”; that is, the right for parents to know if a pedophile was living in their area. Subsequently, trails of this law have been reported as being successful, but I still feel rather uneasy. There will always be the potential for ill-informed or plain wrong information being used to seek ‘justice’ on people who may be nothing more than elderly men living on their own, or indeed something far more tragically comedic.

I am reminded of the disagreement with the current coverage of the re-arrest of Jon Venebles, and the inevitable media coverage.

Earlier this month, 27 year old Jon Venebles was returned to prison following an undisclosed breach of his control order. Seventeen years ago, Venebles and Robert Thompson – aged just 10 – abducted and killed three-years old James Bulger, in a case etched on the collective mind of the nation.

In a statement to the House of Commons I agree with Justice Secretary Jack Straw has said it would not be in “the interests of justice” to release information about Venebles’ return to detention. Quite rightly, Straw has reminded the country about the importance of putting the rule of law above both the mob rule of tabloid hysteria, and the often all-too heavy hand of simple assumption. Make no mistake; I remember the case as vividly as anyone did at the time, and understand why Bulger’s mother feels so emotional about “doors slamming in her face”, as she told television reporters today. Venebles must receive a suitable punishment for his latest reported crime.

Ultimately, the contentious nature of ‘justice’ runs up against the scrum of ‘revenge’ in cases like this. I despair at the reactionary tabloid press, running rumours and ‘exclusives’ about possible reasons for Venebles’ re-imprisonment as though they were simply dealing with the latest reason for Pete Doherty being arrested or John Terry being seen without his wife. No killer, however notorious, can be regarded with any taste as ‘celebrities’. Inevitably the logic of tabloid newspapers appears to bend and curve when dealing with such ‘easier targets’.

If the tabloids get their approach to this story wrong, by splashing rumour and incomplete truth all over the front pages for days on end, all a good lawyer needs to do is prove the impossibility of a fair trail for Venebles to walk free.

“Revenge” is not justice. The death penalty, so often called upon in these circumstances, is simply a form of “revenge”, barely more civilised than blood lust. Maybe this sounds like “tabloid logic”, but I cannot see that killing criminals has made the United States of America any less dangerous for its citizens. The decent rule of justice has already been proven this month; Venebles committed an act against his control order, and is now back in prison. Should be hang for his first crime, or this reported second?

I am not naive enough to believe that tomorrow’s newspapers will U-turn on the exhaustive, breathless crusade for ‘the truth’, as though the full details of Venebles’ latest crime will satisfy readers as the conclusion of a soap story line. I trust that Jack Straw will maintain this measured and mature handling of the situation.

Sometimes “man is the measure of all things”. How we, as a nation, handle this story in the coming weeks could well be the measure of us all.