It must have been a truly terrifying ordeal. For 90 minutes in Edlington in April 2009 two young boys aged nine and eleven were subjected to a sustained and horrific attack by two other boys of the same age. The attackers had done the same only a week earlier. On that occasion their single victim, aged 11, had managed to escape after a passer-by disturbed them.
After these gruesome events came the spectacle of the criminal trial. Two children, barely out of primary school, held criminally responsible for their actions as if they were adults. The older of the two reportedly found the trial difficult to follow. The younger one broke down in tears after a traumatic family history of violence, abuse and neglect was revealed in court.
Everyone knows there is a lot more to these disturbing events than a mere question of guilt or innocence. The possible prosecution of the attackers’ parents for child abuse and neglect says as much. And yet our way of dealings with these horrifying acts of violence – through the drama of a criminal trial – strips us our capacity to ask most of the important questions.
This is more than a mere matter of the age of the attackers. I don’t imagine that anyone who thinks seriously about such things believes that an eleven year old can be held fully criminally responsible for his actions as if he were an adult. The age of criminal responsibility is without doubt set too low in the UK. But had the attackers been 18 at the time of the assaults such extreme acts of violence would still be crying out for an explanation. This is why David Cameron’s claim that the Edlington attacks were symptomatic of ‘broken Britain’ had some resonance, regardless of its opportunism.
I don’t myself claim to have an answer to why two young boys chose to visit such horror on two other boys of the same age; or why they did the same to another boy only a week earlier. Those looking for possible answers could do worse than read Felicitiy de Zulueta’s powerful analysis of the roots of violence in trauma, or Camila Batmanghelidjh’s commentary in The Times.
I imagine their violence had much to do with the traumas they had experienced in their own lives; acting them out through the infliction of suffering on others. But I’m no psychiatrist. I do suspect that for as long as the social response to such events is dominated by the criminal trial and prison we are not going to find the answers.