The tragic and appalling case of the murdered Liverpool toddler Jamie Bulger raises many questions, humanitarian and judicial. And these have all come to a head with the proposed release of the boys who murdered him, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson.
What I would like to know is: do children who commit murder, or other awful deeds, recover and go on to become normal moral beings? Or, does their early dreadful offence indicate that their character is, by definition, psychopathic?
Some studies have shown that psychopaths have indeed started young. Men who later go on heinous offences have started out, as children, by torturing animals. A child who tortures a flesh-andblood animal — I don't count insects or reptiles, frankly — may graduate to worse offences later on.
And yet, when I say that, it also occurs to me that children quite often do dreadful things quite casually, almost as an experiment with the nature of life and being. It is not at all uncommon for an older child to try to murder a sibling, the new-born in the cradle threatening the elder's primacy in the family.
Moreover, when I look back at my own childhood, I did some pretty weird things myself. I must have been about four or five when I tried to drown a dog, out of sheer, malicious spite.
My mother and I were walking along by the River Dodder, in Ballsbridge, Dublin, near the rugby grounds at Lansdowne Road. It was a summer's day and all was quiet. Then I saw, standing on top of the river wall, a wire-haired terrier dog, with his master, gazing down at the river, some drop below. An impulse seized me, and I suddenly pushed the dog into the riven As violent offenders often say in these circumstances "I don't know what came over me".
Yet, on reflection, I do know what came over me. I wanted to take the smug look off the man's face — he was so pleased with his little dog. I wanted to attract my mother's attention — she was bored by the company of young children in those days. And I think I wanted to see the dog suffer. Gratifyingly, the man was beside himself with rage, and my mother overcome with morti
fication. I imagine the dog swam to the shore — dogs do — but I don't quite recall that part.
My mother was a liberal parent — too liberal, really, since children need, and seek, boundaries — and I didn't receive any specific punishment. Indeed, I received the reward of causing mayhem, which was what I sought. But I did hear her friends saying that Mary was a very odd and wild little girl, to play such a cruel and malicious trick. To be the subject of shocked discussion pleased me even further.
Later, I went to live with an uncle and aunt who were (to my mind) extremely strict, and had a consistent sense of deterrents and rewards. If you behaved, you got rewards. If you misbe
hayed, you got punishments: a smack with a wooden spoon, not being allowed out to play, deprived of pocket money. I thought them fearfully narrow-minded, but now I realise that I owe to them a sense of moral development, which perhaps took some time to mature. But it was sown by their disciplines.
I conclude from this that perhaps many children are capable of crimes, carried out on an impulse and the childish desire to see what happens next, and indeed, even to inflict pain. But most children, perhaps all children, can be educated out of this: or as we say in the Christian tradition, redeemed.
But there has been a change in our culture which distorts. Before the cultural revolution of the 1960s, children were regarded as untamed little animals who needed to be formed by the disciplines of civilisation. After the 1960s, the psychologists and child-experts, influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, told us that children were born perfect, and only the bad influences of society corrupted them. This thinking — that the child is perfect, the child is right, the
child cannot be (for example) a racist — now dominates the prevailing values. Teachers are now up against it in allegations of assault or abuse: the child must be right. The adult must be wrong.
The Bulger case shocks us not only because murder is shocking, but also because it demonstrates that children can be wicked, can even be murderers. But that doesn't mean they stay bad all their lives: no. They can be morally refornied, quite literally. The Christian view, that children can be bad but can also be changed, seems to me a much higher and more optimistic approach, than the latter-day view. that children are born good, and then, if they do something wicked, the mob howls for their blood.
I am putting a fiver on Michael Ancram to become leader of the Conservative Party. Not necessarily because he is a Catholic, but because his mother, the Marchioness of Lothian, is the most adorable, nice, decent, funny, brave, pro-life, merry and abfab lady you could encounter.