Jamie Bulger and Moral Panics

Though very out of date, I see this little gem is doing the rounds again…


Oct 10, 2006 1:48 PM

Subject anyone remember Jamie Bulger… take a quick look


> Do you remember February 1993 when a young 3 yr. Old was taken from a Shopping mall in Liverpool, UK by two 10-year-old boys? Jamie Bulger walked away from his mother for only a second and Jon Venables took his hand and led him out of the mall with his friend Robert Thompson. They took Jamie on a walk for over 2 and a half miles, along the way stopping every now and again to torture the poor little boy who was crying constantly for his mommy. Finally they stopped at a railway track where they brutally kicked him, threw stones at him, rubbed paint in his eyes and pushed
Batteries up his anus. It was actually worse than this…

> What these two boys did was so horrendous that Jamie’s mother was forbidden to identify his body. They then left his beaten small body on the tracks so a train could run him over to hide the mess they had created. These two boys, even being boys, understood what they did was wrong, hence trying to make it look like an accident. This week Lady Justice Butler-Sloss has awarded the two boys anonymity for the rest of their lives when they leave custody with new identities. We cannot let this happen. They will also leave early this year only serving just over half of their sentence. One paper even stated that Robert may go on to a University. They are getting away with their crime.

> They disgustingly and violently took Jamie’s life away – in return they get a new life. Please read it carefully… Then add your name at the end… And send it to everyone you can! Please add your name and location to the list and send it to friends and family. Please copy this e-mail (highlight text, right click, copy and paste into a new email) instead of forwarding so we do not get arrows at the beginning of the sentences.

> If you are the 1000th person to sign, please forward email to cust.ser.cs@gtnet.gov.uk and attention it to Lady Justice Butler-Sloss. Then start the list over again and send to your friends and family. The Love-Bug virus took less than 72 hours to reach the world. I hope this one does as well. We need to protect our family and friends from people like Robert and Jon. One day they may be living next to you and your small children, without your knowledge. If Robert and Jon could be so evil at 10 years old, imagine what they could do as adults!




Let us hesitate, for a second and consider this statement further:

No one can deny that this was a fairly unpleasant episode, touching the hearts and consciences of many world-wide. Clearly, children cannot be permitted to get away with killing (and I will discuss the difference between killing and murder in a moment) other children. However perhaps we should look further at the constructions apparent in this statement.

I would first like to address the simple issue of whether Thompson and Venables are indeed “getting away with their crime”. A potentially important part of this argument is whether a crime was committed. Under UK law, the answer to this is yes. However, what is a crime?

Imagine for a moment that this occurred, not in Liverpool, but in Marseilles, Madrid, Stockholm, Den Haag, or for that matter a major city in almost any European country. In this case no crime would have been committed, as a crime (as defined in law) can only be committed by someone over the age of criminal responsibility – of which barring Scotland we have the lowest age thereof (Muncie 2004 ch.7). No Punishment, or indeed rehabilitation could have been forced upon these boys in many other countries in the world. I can’t remember the exact birth date of Thompson or Venables, but if they had killed Jamie Bulger only (at most) 364 days prior to when they did, they would also have committed no crime. Other than Law, what provides that a child, as soon as he reaches their tenth birthday, suddenly, the provisions of the now revoked Doli Incapax (which put the onus on the prosecution when i child was under 14 to show that they know what they were doing was “seriously” wrong) notwithstanding, is suddenly able to differentiate between right and wrong to the extent that an action resulting in death can justifiable be defined as murder?

Briefly let us also consider when homicide becomes the crime of Murder. Mentioning briefly, this is an entirely socially/legally constructed definition, that it may be argued that there are “no absolute standards” (Wilkins 1964 p.46 in: Muncie 2004 p.39), and indeed that there are many incidences when killing is entirely sanctioned (Morrall 2000 Ch.3) “Murder” is not the only offence of homicide under the Anglo-American legal systems. A definition of murder is as follows:

“murder is when a man of sound memory, and of the age of discretion, unlawfully killeth within any country of the realm any reasonable creature in rheum natura under the kings peace with malice aforethought.” (Cited in Card 2001 p.196)

We have discussed the “age of discretion” and (though not relevant to this case), “under the kings peace” (this latter providing that the legally sanctioned killing of war is not murder). This leaves the definitions of “sound memory” and “malice aforethought”, which, though the relationship is complex, may be a part of a process that can mitigate the charge of murder to a lesser charge.

I would like to draw from Morrall (2000) to discuss a couple of branches of theory that may be used in deconstructing crime.

The first of these Morrall terms “faulty individuals”. This holds that crime (or other non-criminal deviant behaviours) are in some way fixed within the make up of the individual, either by “wilful malevolence” or due to evolutionary or biochemical make up. So within this we have ideas such as Lombroso’s “L’Umo Delinquente” or Daly and Wilson’s “”Evolutionary Violence” (Both Cited in Morrall 2000 ch.4). We also have ideas of medical and psychological defects, of which Brookman (2004) cites many, or the media glorified idea of the psychopath, the disordered individual who, due to factors still not fully identified feels no remorse or emotion for his behaviour, and therefore may feel his pleasure in committing a violent act is of more importance than the legal sanctions against that act (Hare 1993, Jones 2001). These theories, as any, have their strong points and weak points, and we may never know if any can be applied to Venables and Thompson, though if we are to accept the statement “”MONSTERS AT 10…IMAGINE AS ADULTS?!” we must be accepting that they are “faulty individuals”. However if this is so, and their offence was due to some inherent defect in their make up are they “of sound memory”?

I will in large pass over the issue of “faulty society”, as the social background of these young boys and the discussion of the effects of “video violence” has been done to death. But I will say, if society, parenting etc. is to blame (as is being accepted it seems by Mr Blair with his demonisation of lone parents, and the frankly disgusting idea that young offenders can be pinpointed before birth) can we using this model say that Thompson and Venables could be blamed for what they did?

Though many of the Sun reading population who petitioned the government for Thompson and Venables to be locked up for life, would probably dismiss out of hand the ideas of someone who is gay, French, and arguably reminiscent of the proverbial hatter, Foucault (1977 p.17) provides an interesting little point that may be pertinent here. Foucault raises the question of the punishment of “passions, instincts, anomalies, infirmities, maladjustments, effects of environment or heredity, […] drives and desires” and notes that underlying causes of deviance (which should be treated) are in fact punished when punishment is levied.

Returning to the definition of Murder, addressed in Foucault’s statement is again the issue of “sound memory” and indeed of “malice aforethought”. At what point does an urge or desire become “malice aforethought”? And can we calculate that Thompson and Venables, whatever their urges, had “malice aforethought” to kill? Maybe they tried to hide their “crime” when they realised that (possibly contrary to their own experiences of being beaten) Jamie Bulger was not going to get up and lick his wounds and be fine. Sadly I cannot reference this final statement, but I have also heard an interesting theory: When a toy stops moving, what do you do? Insert batteries. We will never know what processes occurred in their minds, but a bit of lateral thinking goes a long way when attempting to decode the thought processes of a child…

Just as a short point here. When I was aged around 12, a group of older teenagers (older, though in law having exactly the same criminal responsibility as Thompson And Venables, other than the then provision of Doli Incapax) attempted to steal my bike. The kicked me fairly brutally, threw stones at me, and rubbed (admittedly not paint) but mud in my eyes. Fortunately I did not die from this, and avoided batteries up my bum (as indeed did Bulger, the batteries it seems were only inserted in his mouth). But do we know, 100% that Venables and Thompson intended to kill? Could this not have been a case of childhood bullying gone horribly wrong?

Around the same time as the Jamie Bulger case a 5 year-old was killed in Norway, by three 6 year-olds. Society there, instead of baying for blood from the spawn of Satan, accepted that societies failings had led to a tragic accident. In 1861 two 8 year-olds responsible for a similar murder, though initially demonised were given the verdict of manslaughter. The jury was widely supported in doing so. (Muncie 2004). A minor legal difference perhaps. But important.

I would like to use a further theoretical approach to Crime, to now address the issue of whether Thompson and Venables should have their anonymity preserved. But first some figures:

Between 1997 and 2001, FOUR HUNDRED infants under the age of 5 were victims of homicide in the England and Wales. Between 1992 and 2001, TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY SEVEN homicide suspects in England and Wales were children under the age of 16 (Brookman 2004 p.35-36). Eh? Why have we singled out Thompson and Venables OK firstly, the majority of the four hundred child victims were probably killed by adults. But if an adult threw a stone through my window and a 10 year old child did, I know to whom I’d apportion most blame. Why is murder any different? I accept that these adult “child killers” are not automatically given anonymity, but then they probably did not have the same sized crowd baying for their blood as did Thompson and Venables. The same for the other 257 children who have killed (10 of which, by the way, were under the age (10 remember) that Thompson and Venables had reached meaning they were legally culpable for their actions.

What this is, is what is commonly described as a “Moral Panic”. We see one crime, that, yes fair enough was sickening and more so than anything else we had ever seen before. It made us think that our 10 year-olds may not be the little darlings that we thought they are. And so the media turned it into much more than it was. English Law has many many faults. And in fact, both the Home Secretary’s ruling on the length of detention and the sentencing and trial were subsequently deemed illegal (Muncie 2004). However it is not unknown for other people who kill to serve half their sentence. And to be offered protection if deemed necessary on release.

No one can deny that a wrongdoing occurred. One for which the perpetrators have been punished under the law of their land. Denying Venables and Thompson anonymity would have been tantamount to the death penalty for a crime which, in many other countries than this haven of civilisation that is England, would not be a crime, but rather a sad indication of how we have become.


Brookman, F. (2005), Understanding Homicide, London: Sage

Card, R (2001), Criminal Law, London, Butterworths

Foucault, M. (1977), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, London: Penguin.

Hare, R. D. (1993), Without Conscience – The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us, New York: Pocket Books.

Jones, S, (2001), Criminology, (Second edition), London: Butterworths.

Morrall, P. (2000), Madness and Murder, London, Whurr.

Muncie, J. (2004) Youth and Crime, London: Sage