Notes From a Small Planet

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Suffer little children

It goes against the grain for any journalist to say that no news can be good news; but I am very happy that one particular trail has gone cold for the UK media since the weekend. I'd prefer it if there were no further newsworthy developments in the tragic story of James Bulger, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson.

There can't be many people in Britain who don't know all about this hideous story - but for the rest of you I'll repeat the grim facts. One day in 1993, two-year-old James Bulger somehow came to be wandering alone through a shopping centre in Bootle, Merseyside, when he had the terrible misfortune to encounter Venables and Thompson - then both 10 years old. They led him away on a long walk through the streets of the town, finally stopping at a railway line. There, they tortured and battered little James to death.

Naturally, the crime horrified the nation. It touched two deep fears simultaneously: fears for the young, like the luckless James, and fears about the young, and what they might be capable of, given the youth of the perpetrators. I thought at the time, and still think now, that the latter part of the reaction seemed naive. As a sickly, asthmatic child I'd been badly bullied at school, and so the idea of children being capable of dreadful cruelty didn't shock me at all.

True, it was mercifully rare that such cruelty extended to killing, but that could easily be explained by the killers simply getting carried away and/or careless. The unpalatable fact is that children are very often cruel and selfish; the ability to empathise, to imagine how another might be feeling, usually only develops as people mature. (In some, of course, it never develops at all).

British law sets the age of criminal responsibility at 10 years old. So had Venables and Thompson committed their atrocity a year earlier, they couldn't have been prosecuted. As it was, they were sentenced to life imprisonment, with the judge recommending that they should serve a minimum of eight years. Michael Howard, then the UK government minister with responsibility for criminal justice, attempted to overrule the judge and impose a 15-year minimum. The killers' lawyers challenged this ruling in the European courts and won, establishing (rightly, in my view) the principle that sentencing was the business of judges and not politicians.

And so, a couple of weeks ago, the time came when the eight years were up. A parole board ruled that Venables and Thompson were no longer a threat to the public. Amid massive controversy, it was announced that they would be released, under close supervision, and protected from the wrath of would-be vigilantes by being given new homes and identities.

The decision prompted an inevitable outpouring of primitive emotion and tabloid press hysteria. Last weekend, over a week after the news of the release broke, a chilling BBC 'Panorama' programme revealed how Thompson's mother Ann had been attacked and threatened, and how she and her younger children had been forced to go into hiding for the ninth time in eight years. Venables' family have reportedly suffered a similar fate.

The 'Panorama' programme featured some images that I think will live with me forever. There was a protest rally involving trucks draped with 'Justice For James' banners. A spokeswoman for the protest asked how long the campaign would last, and said something to the effect that it would be until justice was done. Pressed as to precisely what this meant, she kept flatly repeating the single word 'justice'. You didn't need to be a psychiatrist to work out what she meant. Truly, watching 'Panorama', I felt that I understood how witch-burnings had happened in earlier times.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, I have seen supposedly sane people arguing that Thompson and Venables should have been hanged. Thankfully, in the real world, not even the state of Texas executes 10-year-olds. It's even been bizarrely argued that Thompson and Venables' age at the time of the killing is no defence, because they 'committed an adult crime'. Again, this smacks of a refusal to face the fact of how cruel children can be. People cannot cope with the notion that someone so young could be so violent, so they decide that in some strange way, Thompson and Venables weren't really children, even if they were 10 years old.

Sorry, but our society produced two young kids capable of killing a two-year-old. It may be unpalatable, but it's a truth that must be dealt with.

And, in fact, I think it's a truth that has been dealt with commendably by those in authority. Given the scale of the likely political repercussions if either Thompson or Venables were to re-offend, I'm sure that the Parole Board and the other relevant authorities must have been certain that the young men would not act anything like the murderous 10-year-olds they had once been. It would have done Thompson and Venables no good at all to have been kept in the brutalising environment of a young offenders' institution, and the question of their release would have had to have been faced eventually.

It's impossible to be 100 per cent happy at the thought that two people who were once capable of such an appalling crime are now out on the streets. But, in all honesty, I'm more disturbed and frightened by the thought that I'm sharing the streets with the vicious vigilantes who have terrorised Mrs. Thompson into hiding.

Sacred texts

When it comes to religion, I am a committed unbeliever, proud to belong to h2g2's Freedom From Faith Foundation. But I like to have my prejudices challenged from time to time, so I'm happy to report two stories concerning the behaviour of religious believers that have recently lifted my spirits.

One concerned a somewhat surprising presence at San Francisco's 31st annual Gay Pride march: al-Fatiha, an organisation for Muslim gays and lesbians. It's the first time that al-Fatiha have taken part in the march, and they have done so in the face of enormous pressure from some other Muslims.

At a candlelit rally held by al-Fatiha before the march, a supporter named Naveed Merchant told a BBC reporter how he had attempted suicide before eventually making contact with al-Fatiha Foundation through the Internet. When he first told his family that he was gay, they had at first suggested that he try electric shock treatment to 'cure' his sexual orientation. Now, he said, that had reluctantly accepted his lifestyle; but he knew that many Muslims felt that they had to choose between their faith and their sexuality.

He added:
'I decided that I wasn't going to give up either. I really believe that Allah made me this way.'

al-Fatiha members had been threatened by other Muslims, and had been condemned at a San Francisco mosque, where local religious leader Ajaf Shaikh declared:
'Anyone acting in this kind of activity will go to hell. The Muslim culture and religion is totally against this kind of activity.'

Clearly, life isn't going to be easy for al-Fatiha, but their courage in the face of huge pressure is inspirational. I've bookmarked their website so I can look at it the next time I'm feeling misunderstood and sorry for myself. It should help me get my sense of perspective back.

My second tale of true believers concerns a Christian website with a difference, in the form of a delightfully dry sense of humour. The Lord's Prayer has, of course, been translated into most of the world's languages. However, those behind the Ship Of Fools site decided that one rapidly spreading language might have been overlooked. They set a competition in which the objective was to translate the timeless prayer into mobile phone text message language, using 160 characters or less.

The winning entry came from Matthew Campbell, a history student at York University in England. Here it is:
'[email protected],ur spshl.we want wot u want&urth2b like hvn.giv us food&4giv r sins lyk we 4giv uvaz.don't test us!save us!bcos we kno ur boss,ur tuf&ur cool 4 eva!ok?'

Well, it certainly makes more sense than a lot of religious texts I've seen.

Crossing the line

I would now like to turn to a modern curse that holds an honoured, central position in my personal Room 101: a plague that has frequently had me muttering foul oaths or grinding my teeth in frustration. I refer to the nightmare that is the automated telephone answering system.

You know the scenario, I'm sure. You ring a large organisation with a simple question, or a simple piece of information to convey. Your heart sinks as the machine clicks in, and a clinical voice greets you coldly and tells you to press 1 if you want one thing, two if you want something else, three if you want yet another option, and so on.

As often as not, the thing you actually want isn't on the list of options, or falls between two of the categories - and you are never offered the option of speaking to an intelligent, well-informed, helpful human being. If your blood pressure can stand it, you can hang on until you get to speak to someone - but if you do so, the chances are that you'll end up baring your stressed-out soul to some hapless minimum-wage slave in a hellish call centre, who won't have a clue what you're talking about and will have strict instructions to get rid of you by any means necessary within a set, minimal number of seconds.

But the sadists who design these systems don't want you to get that far. And so they inflict alleged music on you: some tinkling little tune that is meant to be soothing, and perhaps would be if it were not on a short tape loop and was not being interrupted every 20 seconds by a taped message reminding you that you're being held in a queue. The temptation to yell 'Yes, I ******g well know I am!' becomes overwhelming, but you know that if you succumb that will surely be the moment at which a soft click heralds some sort of human intervention in the mechanised torment, and you'll end up having to spend 20 of your allotted seconds apologising to the poor prisoner in the call centre.

This pernicious contemporary plague was recognised this week when the results of a survey carried out by the Stressbusters website was announced. It asked the site's visitors which piece of on-hold music irritated them most. The 'winner', with 23% of the votes, was 'Greensleeves', the ancient melody reputed to have been written by Henry VIII. Runners-up, with 14 per cent each were Luciano Pavarotti's rendition of 'Nessun Dorma' and Tina Turner's 'Simply The Best'. They were closely followed by Scott Joplin's 'The Entertainer', Vivaldi's 'The Four Seasons', and (very understandably) anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Horrifyingly, the survey also found that Britons now spend an average of 45 hours a year holding on the telephone, as more and more organisations choose to inflict automated systems on their customers.

The government should tackle this menace now. They should subsidise the employment of real, flesh-and-blood phone operators. I feel sure that the expenditure would be counterbalanced by the savings made on the unemployment benefits that would no longer be required by the telephone operators, and on the National Health Service tranquillisers and other stress treatments that would no longer be needed by those who have suffered grief from 'Greensleeves' for far too long.

Down the Nile

Finally, a tale of someone else who produces music that offends many: Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem.

At the risk of alienating many of this column's younger readers, I have to confess that I am not a great fan of Eminem. I have found some of his work compelling - notably his UK Number One single 'Stan', which performed a real service by drawing the world's attention to its greatly gifted guest star, Dido. Eminem is a talented wordsmith and showman who has been brilliantly marketed; but I find the relentless hostility to women and gays in his lyrics depressing, and it saddens me that expressing such reactionary sentiments now seems to be so widely accepted as 'rebellion'.

However, I can only take Eminem's side when I see him being attacked by the Rev. Fred Nile, who has lambasted the rapper in the run-up to his first Australian tour. Every Australian friend I've ever had has at some point spoken in horrified tones to me about Nile, an Australian MP whose name has been a byword for intolerance in Australia for a generation.

Nile has said of Eminem:
'This guy's smashing all the guidelines and promoting a very anti-social way of life. If Adolf Hitler wanted to get an anti-Jewish message across in Australia he could just put it to music and he would be allowed to do it.'

Whatever may be objectionable about Eminem, comparing him to Hitler seems just a trifle strong. To the best of my knowledge, Eminem has never advocated the extermination of any ethnic groups or planned to become a dictator; nor have I ever heard anyone cry 'Heil Mathers'.

A couple of years back, Nile launched a similarly intemperate attack on Marilyn Manson, whose career did not seem to be particularly damaged. You'd think that Nile would have twigged by now that for someone like him to attack a recording artist only makes that artist seem more dangerous and exciting. Perhaps he does realise that, but rants away anyway just for the publicity.

After all, in both music and politics, almost any publicity is good publicity - but a politician like Nile does more harm than the baddest rapper ever could.


05.07.01. Front Page

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