As more chilling details about the dreadful murder of Brianna Ghey emerged today, many of us will be wondering what kind of society we have come to be living in. As her killers Scarlett Jenkinson and Eddie Ratcliffe, both aged 16, were handed down life sentences the case has not for the first time raised fundamentally disturbing questions about the relationship between young people and lethal crimes.
It was bad enough to hear that the pair had killed 16-year-old Brianna in the most brutal manner in a park in broad daylight, but details now emerging reveal that there was a deep narrative of disorder and violence leading up to this dreadful event.
Over the coming days the media – and thus the wider world – will preoccupy itself with trying to explain the inexplicable. Jenkinson had previously tried to kill another school pupil by poisoning them and had been transferred to Brianna’s school by authorities to “give her a second chance” to redeem herself, and this alone going to raise profound questions.
How these two 16-year-olds became brutal killers is not a new dilemma, but it’s one that sadly society continues to avoid. In cases where a much older adult commits a dreadful crime against another human being it’s relatively easy to rationalise that a fully formed adult has for whatever reason made the decision to step across the boundaries of both the law and morality. But how do we account for young lives that have become warped so quickly, and so early in life?
Reasons are legion, but meaningful answers far less so. A Christian might well blame the loss of God and a moral code in public life, many will fall on the ‘influence of TV and the internet’ narrative whilst others will point their fingers at the parents. Such tropes are easy refuges, and may even be contributory factors, but they hardly ‘explain’ such desperate tragedies.
It’s probably not quite the time for anyone to say they feel sorry for the killers of poor Brianna Ghey but – watching the video clips of Jenkinson and Ratcliffe being arrested – one can’t but feel that a multiple tragedy is being acted out here.
Of course, no human being should be targeted and have their young life snuffed out just because they happen to be different, or vulnerable, but there’s also a serious danger in demonising the perpetrators for reasons that fall wide of the truth. Whilst no-one wants to think too deeply about what’s going on in the mind of a young murderer, if we don’t push through to the right answers, we’re likely to be living with such tragedies for a long time hence.
Firstly, I’d want to separate two particular categories of fatal youth crimes – those that were done in a moment of human instinct, and those that were premediated; distinct scenarios that are often commingled. Crimes of passion, momentary fear or mental imbalance emerge as a consequence of the fragility of the young human mind and whilst they may not be readily forgivable, they are usually explicable.
Beyond this lies a category of crimes – such as the killing of Brianna Ghey, or the abduction and brutal murder of James Bulger – that pose far deeper and more disturbing questions about the nature of society, and the minds of some young people within it.
No doubt there will be inclinations to rationalise the Brianna Ghey killing in terms of either LGBT politics, or as the latest example of the ‘scourge of knife crime’. Early on in the case police made a public statement ruling out transphobia as a motive for the killing, much to the outrage of LGBTQ+ groups who were already holding candlelit vigils in her memory. What these groups couldn’t be told at the time was that numerous Whatsapp messages belonging to the guilty pair revealed that Brianna was simply the unfortunate victim of a far more warped desire to cause lethal harm to another person – Jenkinson and Ratcliffe had discussed killing at least four other children – boys they did not like.
“I think if it hadn’t been Brianna, it would have been one of the other four children on that list,” said DCS Mike Evans of Cheshire police.
“It’s just that Brianna was the one who was accessible at that time, and then became the focus of those desires.” So an orientation hate crime it was not.
This revelation also changes the ‘knife crime’ argument fundamentally, as the weapon was incidental to the desire to inflict harm and thus we ought to resist the obvious temptation to file this case under that category.
Stripping away such responses does bring us to confront the darker aspects of this and many similar crimes, that there is something within the recesses of the human personality that can give even the youngest and most incorrupt of minds the ability to carry out the most brutal and primitive of acts. In such cases the loss of religious fear, poor parenting and violent video games hardly suffice to explain acts of brutal killing that even the most battle hardened of soldiers would baulk at.
Even if one looks to the body of British – and indeed other country’s – law its evident that the passage of time has done little to identify or ameliorate the problem of homicides by children. In terms of criminal responsibility, the age of 10 is the UK minimum for a child to be prosecuted for any type of crime. In Scotland and Ireland it’s 12, whilst in Denmark and Sweden it’s 15. The horrors of the James Bulger case, where the perpetrators were 10 years old, led to something resembling a national panic and gave voice to efforts to lower the age of criminal responsibility – not unreasonably the argument was that if a child is old enough to act like an adult, then they should be treated like one, but it’s not an issue that many politicians seem keen to engage with. For some it was felt that this would be society treating criminal children differently to other children, blaming them for falling short of adult expectations and eroding the principle of childhood as a ‘time of innocence’.
Unfortunately for us all, this idyllic version of childhood was swept away long ago, if indeed it ever existed at all. Looking at the statistics, there’s no question that juvenile crime and delinquency in Britain has climbed steadily over the past half century, but thankfully homicide committed by children and remains extremely rare, though the figures for young adults are becoming starting to become worrying.
When this trend was examined some 20 years ago, a report in the British Medical Journal (Children who Kill, Wolf S., BMJ 13th Jan 2001) concluded that “all these children are seriously disturbed, with high rates of neuropsychological abnormalities, poor impulse control, school failure, and truancy. All have experienced severe family adversities: domestic violence, neglect, child abuse, substance misuse, maternal depression, and absence of fathers.”
This may not sit too comfortably with contemporary liberalists, and it certainly won’t satisfy theologians who would interject that secularism has also negated conscience. Perhaps a combination of these factors leads innocent young minds to commit the most terrible of crimes, but I can’t feeling that we’re still missing something.
Some years ago I had a conversation with a First World War combat veteran and I asked him what had terrified him most about the Great War. He replied without hesitation that it was the bayonet. Why? Because a gun depersonalises the process of killing – you can take another person’s life easily and without effort from a distance, where you don’t feel the experience and they remain an object rather than another human person. The fear of being bayonetted, or bayonetting another person is a far more direct, personal and ugly experience that stays with you forever, as does the memory of the person that you killed.
What has happened then to our society when an ageing war-hardened veteran still speaks in trepidation about such an incident, whilst a 16 year old ‘child’ can methodically plan and carry out such a dreadful act without a moment’s consideration of the consequences for their victim or for themselves? If we fail to answer this question, we’re highly unlikely to solve this dreadful problem.
There was a time when the societal narrative was that the human family was progressing rapidly from the brutal, primitive state of our ancient ancestors towards some kind of highly cultured and civilised state, but increasing one could argue that our trajectory has become the opposite. And it’s not just child homicide that’s the problem, the killing of children by adults is also on the increase, which points to another breach of a human sanctity – the protection of our offspring.
If one looks back at the past five decades, there has been a quite systematic and sustained dismantling of a social order constructed around Christianity. For much of that we have only ourselves to blame, especially where we have fallen short of our own principles, but the drive towards a more secular society has swept away not only the oppressive strictures of a faith that sought to control the state, but also those sound principles of human interaction that separated the human person from the abyss.
In dismissing this religious social construct we have not only separated society from God, we have separated society from morality. As G.K. Chesterton once said: “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”
Seeing acts of criminal brutality in the context of an abandonment of Christian morality may not be the whole answer, but it certainly explains how the human person that God once created could become capable of the most despicable of crimes. And whether secularists like it or not, this issue of moral abandonment needs to be included in any narrative about dealing with the most serious of crimes.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian.