Belmont Club

The Evil that Men Do

News that one of two children who killed a two year old toddler 17 years ago has been reincarcerated has shocked advocates of rehabilitation in Britain. James Venables, now 27, has been sent back to jail for unspecified violations of his conditions of release. The BBC reported that “one of James Bulger’s killers has been returned to prison after he breached the terms of his release. Jon Venables, 27, is back in jail after being released on life licence in 2001, when he was given a new identity. In 1993 he was detained with his friend Robert Thompson for the horrific murder of the two-year-old toddler in Bootle, Liverpool.”

The news was received with great bitterness in the Guardian, which campaigned to give Venable a second chance.  Alan Travis wrote “the recall of Jon Venables to prison is a big setback for the cause of reform and rehabilitation of child killers popularly branded as evil and beyond help. Venables and Robert Thompson have been held up as model case studies of the potential of the criminal justice system to turn around lives, even in the most difficult cases.” Travis quoted the hopeful worlds of  Lord Chief Justice said on that occasion.

“We ought not to forget that, although they committed those very serious crimes, they were first of all human beings, and secondly they were children. Children can do things when they are children that they would never do in later life when they had matured and appreciated,” said Woolf when he cut the length of their sentence to eight years in 2000.

And now, after having been “detained” instead of arrested, and after having being “recalled” instead of re-arrested, the perp is back in stir, now a man and no longer a boy. But it’s not the specifics of the case nor even sympathy for the individuals or victims that is at issue. The problem is one of theology. Are some people evil or can they always be fixed, given enough social work and counseling? The Guardian in 1993 argued it would accept censorship before conceding the principle that the two child perpetrators should ever be identified. They needed a second chance. If criminalizing their identification was the price of giving them another go then so be it. Now that the paper has to say that Venables is back in custody and “it is unlikely to be just a technical breach of his life licence”, it’s a blow to their world view. The Guardian described its position.

In its leader the next day Guardian set out its reasons for declining to join the four newspapers that asked the high court to lift the injunction protecting the anonymity of the killers. The paper noted: “Free speech is important but so is the protection of life. … Rehabilitating the two remains the best public protection.”

The behavior of complex systems such as living things and collections of living things remains one of the most difficult subjects of scientific inquiry. “Man is a mystery”, Dostoevsky once wrote. One researcher told his audience there were very few things about collections of living things that we knew with certainty: one of them being that they would eventually die and even that you can’t take to the bank any more. But that doesn’t stop people from trying to figure life out and trying to control it. Despite evidence that crime — and violent crime — existed in ancient times, there is no shortage of people who believe we can change the world. Social activism can “change” society; and society can in turn remake the individual.  There are no givens which nurture cannot overcome. Even the survival instinct can be reprogrammed.

The New Scientist has argued that “on the slow-sinking Titanic … there was time for [the] social norm of giving priority to women and children to establish themselves” whereas on the Lusitania where survivors were largely strong men between 16 and 35, “instinct and bodily strength dictated survival”. The first was a liberal response to a shipwreck; and the second a conservative. The alternative hypothesis would be that the biological individuals and their associated community optimize their joint survival in different ways depending on circumstances: that under sharp and extreme circumstances everyone is a ‘conservative’; but when luxury allows we can afford to be ‘liberal’.

Nowhere is the argument of nurture versus nature more clearly marked than in the debate over the recidivism of sex offenders. Carl Bialik at the WSJ argues that we don’t even know how to measure recidivism accurately and for sex offenders the rate may vary from 90% to 52% depending on the data collection system. Bialik says that child molesters actually re-offend less frequently, but when they do, it’s a dilly.

existing research raises tough questions about the relative danger child molesters pose to society. Their likelihood of being convicted for a crime after release is much lower than average for all criminals released from prison, and even for all sex offenders, at least in the short term, as measured by a Bureau of Justice Statistics study and others. Yet their crimes, when they do repeat child abuse, are unusually harmful, and their victims particularly vulnerable. Does that justify the closer monitoring of child molesters after release, compared with other criminals?

The same may be said for terrorists. By the standards of sex offenders terrorists are comparatively easy to rehabilitate. The only problem is that when they do the result may be a couple of hundred or a couple of thousand dead bodies.  The New York Times reports that only 1 in 7 freed detainees returned to terrorism or militant activity. Yet that has shaken the advocates for their release, like Mark Denbeaux, whose response might have been straight out of the Guardian. Why speak of “bad people” out there when there are just misguided individuals society hasn’t helped yet?

Mark P. Denbeaux, a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law who has represented Guantánamo detainees and co-written three studies highly critical of the Pentagon’s previous recidivism reports. “They want to be able to claim there really were bad people there.”

Mr. Denbeaux acknowledged that some of the named detainees had engaged in verifiable terrorist acts since their release, but he said his research showed that their numbers were small.

“We’ve never said there weren’t some people who would return to the fight,” Mr. Denbeaux said. “It seems to be unavoidable. Nothing is perfect.”

One wonders whether if that one terrorist in seven decided to attack Mr. Denbeaux if it would make any difference whether the attack took place so quickly that he would have to respond with “instinct and bodily strength” or whether there would be enough time for “social norms” to kick in. If you left a victim of the World Trade Center attack in the burning tower long enough would he eventually realize that it was partly his fault? Would it matter? And yet what sort of society would it be that never gave a man a chance to climb back on the wagon, to claim forgiveness from a spouse from infidelity or a chance to start life again after “paying back a debt to society”?

The human desire for a second chance  is almost as strong as the knowledge that many will fail shortly thereafter. Man is trapped in his own nature. Society has been trying and failing since the day of the Babylonian cop to make us rise to higher things on the “steps of our dead selves” even if it takes the re-education camp to do it.

Maybe one of the reasons for a persistent belief in God is the intuition that renewal and the forgiveness it requires can never be attained in a human context. Faith in the Almighty is probably inversely proportional to our faith in ourselves. If the Guardian can’t save you it’s time to try something else. Some perps have probably come to the conclusion that to find redemption you have to jump out of the human system to do it. George Santayana, who oscillated between being an agnostic and an “aesthetic Catholic,” must have been aware of the dilemma.  He finished his days in the care of the Convent of the Blue Nuns. Santayana observed that “if pain could have cured us we should long ago have been saved.”  He might have added that no amount of anonymity can keep us from remembering our names.


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