Friday, February 15, 2013

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.