Killer Children

It happened, once upon a time, that the Marquis de Sade was in a good humor. He wrote a novel Aline and Valcour, in which he created a utopia. In Tamoë there was no capital punishment. If society had to take measures against a murderer, it put him in a boat with a month’s supplies, and launched him on the tide to meet his fate: to become, perhaps, someone else’s problem. At any rate, the people of Tamoë did not have to think about him again, and were able to return to their sun-soaked, caring-and-sharing South Pacific lives.

When children kill other children, we come close to wishing for a Sadean solution. They come near to the top of the list of what society would prefer not to think about. We cannot kill them, but how can we bear for them to live among us? Under what circumstances can they do so? Without the dark dungeon and the lock, how can we withstand the assault on our own shreds of innocence? We would, if we could, launch them on dark waters of forgetfulness; simply rub them out, as monstrous blots. But since they cannot be made to disappear, we unite in moral panic. Their acts, their persons, provoke a hysterical vigilante reaction. The bereaved family’s desire for revenge is vented again and again through the national media. Their private suffering becomes a public spectacle.

Outrage is mixed with bewilderment. Something in our language itself seems violated. “Innocent” and “victim” make a pair. The words are close-coupled. “Innocent” and “child” also make a pair. We are half-accustomed to the idea of guilty victims; courts throughout the world have been trying women for years for the crime of being raped. But “innocent offender”? No system of justice can accommodate the idea, and no system of law or welfare is designed to deal with crimes that are so rare.

Gitta Sereny has been involved with the case of Mary Bell from its origin in 1968, when two young girls, aged eleven and thirteen, were tried for the killing of two small boys, three and four years old. The girls were Mary and Norma Bell—they were neighbors, but not related—and the dead children were Brian Howe and Martin Brown. Both the victims were known to the girls, and to most of the district. They were children who toddled from house to house and played in the streets, in their working-class area of the northeastern city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

When Martin’s body was found in the rubble of a derelict house, it was unmarked, except for the blood and saliva that had run from the mouth. Poisoning was considered and rejected, and it was decided that the child had met with some strange accident. Nine weeks later the body of Brian Howe was found on waste ground. The pressure marks and scratches on his neck indicated that he had been killed, but so little force had been used that the …

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Letters

Growing Up December 2, 1999