Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The logical conclusion of "pre-emption."

Is this what it's actually come to? I'm pretty sure I just saw Tony Blair offer up the argument that if we hadn't gone into Iraq in 2003, Saddam might have got weapons of mass destruction by 2010.

He's actually laughing at us.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Media's childish portrayal of children who commit crimes

Yesterday, two children were sentenced for horrific offences that they had committed on other children. The media coverage concerning this case has been infuriatingly juvenile.

The acts perpetrated by the two child defendants were horrific and the impact on the victims involved will probably be lasting and enormously damaging to them and their families. This has all been covered by the media and is of course worth reporting. What has been conspicuously lacking is serious, humane, grown-up commentary concerning the two children who committed these crimes.

These boys have been branded by the media as “evil brothers”, “hell boys”, “devil brothers”, “little savages” and that isn't just the tabloids. The labeling of these children with such terms supports an infantile worldview where people fit neatly into the categories of either “baddies” who are evil, or “goodies” who are virtuous. This diverts attention away from where we should be looking.

And where we should be looking is at the circumstances in which the boys grew up. A small insight into the two brothers' background – where journalists have bothered to report it – indicates a severely disturbed, violent and abusive upbringing. I do not mention this to try and elicit sympathy for the boys; it is, however, important information if we want to get to the bottom of why this happened and how we can stop things like this from happening again.

The apportioning of blame is not as simple as dumping it all at the feet of these children and trawling the horror section in Blockbusters to come up with catchy headlines. These boys are not evil, they are not possessed by malevolent spirits and they are not acting on satan's orders. These children have been brought up in enormously damaging circumstances and it is extremely difficult to decide where to assign the blame: social services? the boys' parents? society as a whole? Perhaps all of these to an extent and elsewhere as well.

So why does it matter whether we label the children “evil” or, alternatively, say they are a product of their upbringing? The debate over the age of criminal responsibility shows us why. The age of criminal responsibility is currently 10 [1] and therefore children aged 10, 11, 12, etc. are deemed to be culpable for their actions [2].

There are many who think that the age of criminal responsibility is too low and should be raised to at least 14. The media's labeling of children as “evil” tends to be seized upon by those who disagree and think that our age of criminal responsibility is justified. They argue that cases such as that of the Edlington boys (who were 10 and 11 respectively when the offences were committed) illustrate that the age of responsibility should not be lowered, otherwise these boys could not have been prosecuted. This argument is circular – “These children are morally responsible at the age of 10, therefore these children are morally responsible at the age of 10”. There is nothing but the media's childish reporting of “evil” children to back up this argument.

More generally, it matters that we do not descend into childish ideas of good and evil people, as once the puerile assumption is made that such children are “evil”, then no further analysis needs to take place, because the reason why the bad thing happened is that they are bad kids. Hence an important opportunity is lost to investigate failures endemic in human systems which have led to this horrendous situation. That's deeply concerning, as there is a serious need to examine the real causes behind what has happened and actively do something to rectify the problems which are found, if we want to reduce the chances of this sort of thing happening again. We need to ditch the childish approach, and have a mature, grown-up discussion.

[1] The age of criminal responsibility in most European countries is 15 and in Belgium it is 18.

[2] Some allowances are admittedly made at the sentencing stage – unless the crime is so terrible that the child magically becomes fully responsible for their actions and so bears pretty much the full brunt of the punishment, i.e. the degree to which a child is morally responsible for his or her actions is directly correlative to the seriousness of the offence – the logic of which I have never understood.

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