So what is this fixation with punishment for acts deemed guilty?
I think that the idea that "guilt" should be punished is one of humankind`s long-needed primitive ideas and it is around us all, in our relationships, our societies, attitudes, culture and religion.
The problem is that we all grow up with the notion that acts that we regard as unacceptable, in society, in the home, or wherever we may be, should be punished. That the only way to curb unwanted behaviour is to threaten and deliver retribution.. Children learn this from parents, teachers try to enforce this in schools and society wants anything that is "not acceptable", punished. We seem to be so riddled with punishment as the only solution to unwanted behaviour, that we have to convince ourselves, somehow, that what we are doing is right. It`s as though all the officiousness, the trappings of protocol, the wealth and power of law, feed us with the idea that our justice system must indeed be just, since it is so invested with such esteemable structure.
When we consider the case of Venables and Thompson we, both as individuals and within the legal system, are very confused about what guilt is and what mitigations should be offered to those accused, and I think that this is one reason why we have a very shaky justice system (I mean "shaky" in the sense of morally confused). I really feel that since guilt is not something that is a universal, our system of punishment flounders from the start. What I mean is, we are dealing with issues of crime or misdemeanor with a wish to punish and yet we are not sure whether mitigation should play a part or not, in what circumstances, or upon whichever factor compels sympathy-value at any given time !!! The plain fact is that in a society that disadvantages large sections of the population, exculpation of guilt could be applied on a massive scale.
In the case of Venables and Thompson, there may be various mitigations that would make the purpose, or consequence of punishment, both unfeasible and immoral... Their age may be considered pre-competent or they may have learned aggressive and destructive behaviour that gives them a psychological condition of mental incompetence. However, though we all feel the deepest horror at the way Jamie Bulger was murdered, somehow the humanity of mitigation did not seem to play its hand in this case.
The age of deemed competence is 10 years old, yet I feel that the emotive weight of the Bulger murder denied Venables and Thompson proper, humane treatment. In other words, "the mob", society, was so incensed about Jamie Bulger`s murder (and who wouldn't be?) that our sense of rightfulness was swayed by animal-driven lex talionis. (I am mindful that these instincts for retribution were the very justifications for the American treatment of detainees at Guantanamo.)
My final thought here is, I think that our prosecuting two children in an adult court will be seen in the future as an act of serious cruelty, matching the emotional need for revenge for Jamie Bulger. And, in fact, this example of even our (primitive) justice system at work, shows us we are both confused about what we are doing and that our attachment to punishment has roots in our animal nature.
I feel that the measure of us as a society, as human beings, is represented............. just as the American Government represented itself in its conduct around the world when they sought revenge for the Twin Towers......... in the extent of our compassion at times of our own greatest suffering.