Of men and monsters
Published 01 April 2010
Fifteen years ago, two ten-year-old boys tortured and killed a toddler, James Bulger, in the north of England. There was an outcry of public horror, though why the public found this particular murder especially shocking is not entirely clear. Children, after all, are only semi-socialised creatures who can be expected to behave pretty savagely from time to time. If Freud is to be credited, they have a weaker superego or moral sense than their elders. In this sense, it is surprising that such grisly events do not occur more often. Perhaps children murder each other all the time and are simply keeping quiet about it. William Golding seems to believe, in his novel Lord of the Flies, that a bunch of unsupervised schoolboys on a desert island would slaughter each other before the week was out.
Perhaps this is because we are ready to believe all kinds of sinister things about children, since they seem like a half-alien race in our midst. Since they do not work, it is not clear what they are for. They do not have sex, though perhaps they are keeping quiet about this, too. They have the uncanniness of things which resemble us in some ways but not in others. It is not hard to fantasise that they are collectively conspiring against us, in the manner of John Wyndham's fable The Midwich Cuckoos. Because children are not fully part of the social game, they can be seen as innocent; but for just the same reason, they can be regarded as the spawn of Satan. The Victorians swung constantly between angelic and demonic views of their offspring.
A police officer involved in the case of the murdered toddler declared that the moment he clapped eyes on one of the culprits, he knew that he was evil. This is the kind of thing that gives evil a bad name. The point of demonising the boy in this way was to wrong-foot the soft-hearted liberals. It was a pre-emptive strike against those who might appeal to social conditions in seeking to understand why they did what they did. And such under standing can always bring forgiveness in its wake. Calling the action evil meant that it was beyond comprehension. Evil is unintelligible. It is just a thing in itself, like boarding a crowded commuter train wearing only a giant boa constrictor. There is no context which would make it explicable.