I've been thinking about this question over the past few weeks as a result of some initiatives I have been involved in. First there is My Story, a series of harrowing first person accounts by young people who as children were convicted of committing serious violent acts. The stories these young people tell are of routine violence, abuse, capricious parenting, neglect and trauma. The violent acts they were eventually convicted of were in crucial respects the end of a drama of trauma and violence that they had experienced from a very early age.
Most people can accept that children who commit serious violent acts have themselves experienced deeply traumatic and violent events that have shaped them and their responses to the world around them. Yet when it comes to the appropriate response, far fewer can think beyond mere punishment. My Story challenges us all to make the link between the damaged child and the violent act. It asks us to think seriously about where violence comes from, how it can be prevented and how we can respond, with humanity and understanding, to those who commit violent acts.
It also poses a practice challenge in the here and now. As Mary Riddell pointed out last week in The Daily Telegraph, opportunities to intervene in the lives of traumatised young people are there, but all too often they are 'are either highly flawed or all but useless'. I know from conversations I have had with those working in practice that this state of affairs is a frustrating and disheartening one.
Yet in general the issues raised by reports such as My Story are dealt with only fleetingly, if at all, by the mainstream media and political classes. There are some honourable exceptions. My favourite example comes from an unusual source: Richard Littlejohn some years ago in The Sun newspaper. Those with longish memories will recall the emotive debate that unfolded in the media in the run up to the release of John Venables and Robert Thompson, the two boys convicted of the killing of James Bulger. In a quite remarkable intervention - The repulsive sight of men and women baying for blood - Richard LIttlejohn challenged millions of Sun readers to think through their assumptions about guilt and culpability. As he wrote: 'I was as horrified as anyone at the murder of James. I couldn’t bring myself to read the graphic reports of the court case. But I was also horrified by the lynch mob, grown men and women baying for the blood of two ten-year-old boys. And they were ten years old at the time, not fully-formed adults'. He went on to point out that 'there is a difference between the actions of a pre-pubescent child and those of a mature adult'.
For many this leads on naturally to reflection on what should be the appropriate age of criminal responsibility. This is an important question. But far more fundamental issues are at stake than that of criminal responsibility. My Story poses profound questions about childhood; what it means to give a child a stable and loving base from which they can grow up and explore the world; how we as a society deal with and respond to conflict.
This was brought home to me by a speech given a couple of weeks ago to the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies by the psychoanalyst, writer and activist Susie Orbach. Her subject was 'Recession, riots and social change'. She explored the motivations, thoughts and feelings of those who rioted, as well as of the bankers, politicians, members of the general public and others. One of the really important points she made was that we all have a tendency to accept the complexity of the issues at stake, but to shy away from the implications because it is, frankly, too hard to confront. Many can agree that the riots, and indeed the financial crisis, have deep social and political roots, as Gary Younge pointed out in a Guardian column back in August. But as individuals there is little we feel able to do about these overwhelming social processes. Meanwhile, we worry about the apparent breakdown of social order and all that it might represent. So we fall back on easy solutions - tough sentences, hardline policing - while knowing in our hearts they do not really offer a solution at all.
And so also with the violent and traumatic acts of those who have themselves been violently traumatised. Witnessing to the disturbing experiences of others, however much they might be distanced from us in time and space, carries its own burden. This is one of the reasons why it is often so hard to have a serious discussion about difficult, sometimes painful, issues. It is also a reason why it is so important to confront them and grapple with their implications for policy and for practice.