The horrendous and sadistic torture of two young boys in Edlington is a crime that touches very raw nerves indeed. The violation of innocence by violence is as disturbing as anything can be: the idea that it was two brothers, themselves still only children, doing that fills me with special fear.
The involvement of children in a crime against children adds an extra dimension of despair. What was going through their minds when they lured their victims to that wooded ravine in Edlington? Surely not just, as they claim, "There is nowt to do"?
More and more, it is beginning to look like William Golding's fictional universe of juvenile savagery in Lord of the Flies is now frightening real – lying all around us in our schools and neighbourhoods.
But even without the two young perpetrators, the story touches our deepest fears from our own childhoods, and even more so among those of us who might be parents. The child who is lured away by goblins or other evil forces is an image straight out of the nightmare ghost stories we used to hear as children or the fairy-tales of the Brothers Grimm.
It reminds me of the 2007 case of Sean Luke in Trinidad, where a seven-year-old boy was tortured and murdered by two boys near his age in a sugar-cane field. And, of course, there have been many comparisons in the UK with the equally heinous 1993 murder of two-year-old James Bulger, lured away from his mother by two teenagers in a shopping centre, horrifically assaulted and left on a railway track to finally die under the wheels of a train. The picture of the distraught mother, Denise Bulger, after her child had vanished and the poignant fact that James had been taught his name and address must have struck deep chords in any parents who have looked after a child in a public place, or who have carefully primed their children before allowing them a degree of freedom. The Edlington horror comes just a couple years after Bulger's killers, now young adults, were released from prison in the UK under secret identities to protect them from repercussions. The terrible deaths of "Baby P" and Victoria Climbie too are still fresh in our minds.
I have personally experienced the heart-stopping fear of looking down and finding that a friend's child under my care was no longer by my side in a crowded shop. Those of us who remember dimly the terror, when we were small children ourselves, of briefly getting separated from a parent in a street or store will likewise have experienced a frisson when first hearing about this crime.
Parents today are fearful as never before about their children's safety. The media does much to promote such a fearful set of attitudes. We are constantly hearing of abuse, children gone missing and paedophiles living among us. Such cases help make parents so fearful for their children they impose more restrictions on them than they may have experienced when they were young themselves. They may prevent their children from playing outside, or insist that they don't travel alone on public transport. That, in turn, may deny kids that outdoor experience that is so important to learning and understanding the world they live in. And so, human interaction often gets replaced by television, computer games and online social networks, producing a generation that is becoming more and more desensitised to the realities of life.
Most murders, not just those of children, are committed by people who know their victims. Statistically, parents are among the most likely murderers. And three quarters of the serious head injuries inflicted on young children are suffered by the under-fives. Most of the assailants are young parents between the ages of 18 and 25 or their cohabitees.
At the same time that the media is full of horrific stories about crimes against children, however, there is an equivalent panic about children as the perpetrators of crime. Young people are being simultaneously mourned and demonised – both sets victims of a culture of moral degeneracy.
The problem is that few people are prepared to put these two halves of the picture together. The antisocial, delinquent child is – almost always – the abused, damaged or neglected child. The links between the child as victim and the child as victimiser are devastatingly obvious. The Edlington case shows the extreme end of child abuse. But behind that lies an enormous area of child victimisation. No one knows whether child cruelty is any more prevalent today than it ever was. What we do know is that our society has become much more sensitised to it so that it is being picked up and reported far more widely.
Those who deal with young offenders – social workers, probation officers, psychologists and psychiatrists, prison commissioners – know that these young criminals overwhelmingly come from backgrounds of family breakdown or poor parenting. According to reports, the brothers grew up in a violent and abusive household with an alcoholic father and a drug-using mother. They were beaten, allowed to watch graphic horror and porn DVDs and had their meals laced with drugs when their mother wanted a 'quiet night in'. Cases of child abuse like these that actually come to court reveal depths of depravity that are even more shocking since so many of the offenders are parents. And it is a fair bet that most of those parents were themselves the victims as children of parental neglect or ill-treatment.
Statistically our chances of being the victims of violent crime, or of our children being abducted and murdered by a stranger, are remote. Yet these statistics are unlikely to make us feel any easier. And our fears should not be dismissed therefore as irrational. Those who dismiss them fail to take into account other factors which are as important to our perceptions of our safety as are the Government or police figures.
When a woman is attacked along a lonely path, women feel that much more unsafe. Many will decide at that point never to walk in such an area alone. When newspapers report that a woman motorist has broken down on a motorway and has then been raped by a passing driver who ostensibly stopped to help, other women drivers start to worry about their own safety. It doesn't make them feel any safer to rehearse the statistical truth that the majority of victims of violent assault are young men. Nor does that make them irrational. It is simply that women are far more vulnerable than are men to an assault, and the consequences for a woman of being attacked are potentially far more devastating.
Shopping centres, parks and playgrounds are principal public spaces. They are the places, along with public transport, where we are most likely to meet strangers. They are not always community spaces filled with friendlier faces. But the two young boys from Edlington were led from the street where they lived, by boys they knew and probably considered friends, apparently unnoticed by anyone. To expect anyone to have spotted what was happening may have been difficult, but the fact is that more and more people are looking the other way anyway, not wanting to get involved. Even if the victims were being dragged away crying, would anyone have stopped to ask questions or help them?
The horror of Edlington appals not least because it exposes once again our society's continuing degeneration and our own increasing isolation. The boys trusted "friends" and almost lost their lives. It is a crime for our times.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned…
– William Butler Yeats