CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

When Kids Kill

Dec 11, 1993

The murder of two year-old James Bulger by two pre-teenage boys horrified England and the world. It seemed an anomaly. It was not. Shortly after the court delivered its verdict against James’ killers, England woke up to more bizarre news. This time it was the torture and attempted murder of three young brothers by two older playmates aged 10 and 11 in the north-eastern city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

But this is not only a British phenomenon: as the Bulger murderers were facing trial, three 8 to 10 year-olds bashed to death a homeless man in France.

The Bulger case has been well-analysed, but whether the right lessons will be drawn remains problematical. The killers of little James Bulger had a least two strikes going against them even before they embarked upon their lives of crime. Both of these boys came from broken homes and both were reared in a culture that is loath to make moral judgments.

Now to highlight these two deficiencies is not in any way to offer excuses for their behaviour, but to help understand why the murder happened and why such murders might happen again.

First, both Robert Thompson and Jon Venables grew up in broken homes. Obviously not every child from a dysfunctional family will embark on a career of crime.

However, a host of studies has made it clear that children who come from broken homes have a much greater chance of engaging in anti-social behaviour than children from two-parent families.

Statistics show that a child is much more likely to engage in violent, criminal behaviour if raised with only one parent. Not only crime, but the chances of drug and alcohol abuse, poor educational performance, and proclivity to suicide are all greatly increased if a child comes from a broken home.

The Murphy Brown syndrome – that single parenting is just another lifestyle choice – needs to be reevaluated. Perhaps the old social stigma attached to illegitimacy could be reconsidered. Writing in The Spectator not long ago, Theodore Dalrymple remarked that such an idea would be anathema to the liberals. After all, they say, there is no reason why unmarried parents should not look after their children perfectly well. Said Dalrymple: “Many surgical operations can be performed on the kitchen table, but that is no reason why they should not be performed in hospital. I live in a world so liberal that no stigma attaches to anything.”

Second, these kids grew up in modern secular England, a culture not unlike our own, in which moral absolutes and issues of right and wrong have been replaced by an emphasis on tolerance, diversity, pluralism and acceptance. The only sin now is being judgmental. Anything goes.

Twenty years ago when psychologist Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled Whatever Became of Sin? he created quite a controversy. But surely he was on to something.

Today we do not want to offend anyone. Indeed it is getting dangerous to do so, with law suits being hurled at the slightest remark. What hope do kids have when our entire educational system teaches that there are no values, there are no rights and wrongs. Schools encourage kids to go and find their own values.

Comments Dalrymple: “A world without penalties, where anything and everything is both understood and forgiven, and where everyone expects rewards irrespective of his or her behaviour, is a nightmare world without meaning.”

Indeed, a world where we do not tell kids that certain forms of behaviour are wrong is a world where we will see more and more brutality and savagery.

Given our low tolerance for being anything other than tolerant; given our tendencies to see sin and moral evil as illusory, the real question to ask is not “why did these ten-year-olds kill little James Bulger?”, but “why aren’t there many more such child killers?”

The liberal mindset is known for two things: its disbelief in objective evil, and its belief in the perfectibility of mankind. As Santayana once quipped: “The chief aim of liberalism seems to be to liberate men from their marriage vows.”

The collapse of moral absolutes and the collapse of families is now beginning to bear fruit. One can only expect more Bulger-type killings unless we fundamentally reassess these two hallmarks of contemporary Western culture: the breakdown of families and the breakdown of morals.

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