Did the Internet really turn a boy into a child rapist?

One of the lesser reported crime stories last week was the rape of a 9 year old girl by a 12 year old boy, and the non-sentence imposed on him.

This case happened on a Scottish island; it would undoubtedly be possible to be more specific, but due to the way these sort of cases are dealt with in the UK, it is probably not wise to research it in any depth. The rape and a sexual assault happened between December 1, 2010 and January 31 last year. At the time, the perpetrator was 12 years old; he is now 14.

In the UK and most other civilised countries there are special rules for child offenders, and rightly so. A 14 year old who vandalises a bus shelter or even burgles a house will not be tried as much less be dealt with as an adult. There are very sensible reasons for this. When we are young, we all do stupid things; the degree of this stupidity and the nature of it varies from individual to individual, but it is a rite of passage for all of us or nearly all of us.

Most of us smoke a cigarette or two, if only because our parents forbid it. Most of us drink or at least try alcohol, and a few drink far too much. Drugs are never far from every concerned parentís mind nowadays. Some try out sexual perversion; petty theft including shoplifting and all manner of dares are sometimes undertaken, then there are gangs. There is absolutely nothing wrong with teenagers hanging out in gangs even if they do wear hooded sweatshirts, but some gangs go far beyond this, of course.

There are though some forms of behaviour for which even a very young age is no real mitigation; the extraordinarily lenient treatment to which child killers Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were subjected outraged many members of the public, and in the case of Venables, who is now back behind bars, this outrage appears to have been warranted. Although even the rape of a child is not in the same class as murder, the way this current case has been handled may well also be cause for concern.

How can it have been considered proper for even a 12 year old rapist to receive a non-custodial sentence, ever? Another disturbing facet of this case is that the rape had been watched by a friend, who at least didnít video it as did a 16 year old of another shocking case that was dealt with recently by the English courts.

There is though yet another disturbing feature of this case, namely the attempt not merely to explain but to blame these acts on his viewing extreme pornography on the Internet. This is of course an old chestnut that predates the invention of the computer, much less the worldwide web, namely that some films, literature, even paintings and cartoons are so demonic that they have the power to deprave and corrupt the young, and the solution is of course censorship. Not very subtle but then the enemies of freedom seldom are when you strip away the rhetoric. Remember what Chris Tame always used to say: when they talk about protecting your children, what they really mean is destroying your rights.

Broadly speaking there are two extreme arguments for and against this: one is that witnessing extreme perversion, cruelty or even murder may tempt a child or even a reasonably intelligent adult to emulate said behaviour. The other is that it may revolt the viewer so much that he would never consider doing any such thing. There is also a suggestion that watching such acts may be a safety valve that allows certain people to let off steam, or give the viewer some sort of perverted vicarious thrill.

Whatever the truth of these claims, and it is of course possible for all of them to be true for different individuals under different circumstances, there is the little matter of free will. Sometimes it is not easy to distinguish right from wrong, indeed sometimes we have to choose between two evils, but the rape of a child is not a ticking time bomb scenario, and even a 12 year old must surely realise it is wrong, just as must Thompson and Venables have realised the kidnap, torture and murder of 2 year old James Bulger was wrong.

[The above op-ed was first published on June 5, 2012; the original wasnít archived.]

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