01:17, November 25 66 0 theguardian.com

2017-11-25 01:17:04
Society did right by James Bulger’s killers

They were Child A and Child B. The public weren’t told the names of the boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, until they had been found guilty of the murder of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993. The decision by the judge to reveal the identities of the pair was controversial, causing complications and difficulties that were outlined by Sir David Omand in his 2010 review of the probation service’s handling of the case.

Nevertheless, despite the logistical and moral difficulties the judge’s decision unleashed, we are where we are. The bare bones of the progress the two men have made since their release seven years ago is common knowledge. Thompson is reported as living a stable life in a stable community with a partner who knows of his past. Venables has just returned to custody for a second time, for offences involving child pornography.

At the time of the trial it was Child A, Thompson, who was characterised as the moving force behind the long, slow, dawdling, merciless crime. Venables’ defence lawyer described Thompson as a “pied piper”. A detective on the case, Phil Roberts, forcefully informed the media that this was his impression too. Others said that Thompson showed no remorse, while Venables did. As the extreme delinquency of Venables continues into his mid-30s, it’s tempting to conclude that they got it wrong. Very tempting.

Except that the obvious conclusion isn’t always the right one. Perhaps the situation is counterintuitive. Maybe Venables is less able to close the door on his past precisely because his guilt and shame are greater. Is it likely? Is it possible? Does it even matter? The most obvious fact of all remains. Those boys did something profoundly and outlandishly cruel and wrong. One of them still hangs around the periphery of that dark place, even though he should have the intelligence and maturity to understand the consequences, for himself and for the children in the images he seeks.

Is it even right to speculate?

One difficulty is that releasing personal information in the public interest tends to feed a desire for further information. In a case as horrific as this one – the two remain the youngest convicted murderers in modern English history – a desire for more information would always have persisted. People are drawn to the bleakest corners of human capability, confronted by the choice, as framed by former prime minister John Major, as to whether the thrust of their response should be to “understand” or “condemn”.

For a lot of people, the trajectory of Venables since his term in rehabilitative custody would confirm condemnation to be the correct response. But even that isn’t a straightforward judgment to make. For our understanding of human malfunction has markedly increased since 1993. Neuroscience has advanced, in part due to the development of diffusion tensor MRI technology. A study conducted at King’s College London in 2009 that considered nine diagnosed psychopaths found that their brain images showed significant deficit in the uncinate fasciculus. This connects the amygdala, which controls major emotional responses including fear and aggression, to the orbitofrontal cortex, which controls important decision-making. It’s a physical tract, an infrastructure for the neural pathways that can be strengthened or weakened by environment. A defective tract, possibly congenital, means defective thinking, possibly congenital. Which is not to say that either Thompson or Venables themselves are psychopaths. I know no more than anyone else with access to the internet, and probably a lot less than many. But experts who have had access to the two men resist such a diagnosis. My wider point is more about the condemning and the understanding.

One of the fascinating things about this case is that, despite public revulsion at the idea the boys could be helped to live useful lives, those in favour of understanding have been vindicated, thus far, in the case of Thompson. Yet even this is a moral hall of mirrors. If Thompson is the one more capable of control, then why didn’t he exercise it? The positive aspect of this is that one possible conclusion is that therapeutic help enabled him to develop and grow more typical neurological regulation. Environmental intervention can cause people to change, especially children and young people.

But what of the people who can’t change, or can’t change enough? The King’s College research suggests environment is not everything. Why should it be? Congenital physical abnormalities in the brain, by far our most complex organ, are surely far more likely than congenital heart defects.

There are both condemners and understanders who are too keen on this logical assumption. Liberals like to believe in the perfection of the newborn human as much as Christians do. It’s one of the irritations of humanism. For them, environment is all. Condemners, however, tend to be big on moral responsibility. This guy had a much worse childhood than that guy, they’ll say, and he did OK. They’re Old Testament. They love the idea of evil and wickedness, of full human choice and the full human choice of darkness. Even the word dyslexia, for them, is like a red rag to a bull.

The condemners have some grounds for scepticism, by their own lights anyway. In the US, brain scans are being used more often in criminal trials, largely for technical reasons, to argue that a convict’s sentence should be reduced because his original defence didn’t present evidence of brain abnormalities, or that his sentence should be lighter because brain deficiencies reduce culpability.

Again, though, all of these people, the lawyers and those who dislike the science they are using, miss the point. Understanding is not a synonym for forgiveness. No matter how capable or incapable people are of controlling their actions, they are sometimes a danger to others. It’s for those others, not just for moral satisfaction, that freedom sometimes needs to be restricted or curtailed. Jon Venables, right now, is exactly where Jon Venables needs to be.

Deborah Orr is a Guardian columnist