International Papers

The Kids Who Killed the Kid

The imminent release of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who tortured and killed 2-year-old James Bulger eight years ago when they were 10 years old, dominated the British papers this weekend. They will be given new identities and are prohibited from contacting one another or returning to their home region of Merseyside.

Bulger’s mother and father were interviewed in several papers, both making veiled threats against the killers. The populist tabloids fanned the flames of revenge. The Sunday People’s “man of the people” columnist railed against the decision to free the boys (“[T]he Parole Board people will all be middle-class types who won’t have to live anywhere near the Venables and the Thompsons, or whatever they now call themselves, so why should they care if their little social experiment goes wrong and some other child gets done?”); attacked the “soft life” ahead for the killers and their families who have been supplied with homes, cars, and other amenities to support their new identities (“[T] he moral of little James’ murder is clear: Kill a kid and get a house.”); and predicted the boys’ whereabouts would soon be revealed with violent consequences ("I suspect it won’t be long before all manner of facts about these two and their cushy new life leak out, initially on the Internet. And then the public, who can barely contain their outrage at what has been done in their name, will have their say.”). Even in papers that condemned the call to vigilantism, there were complaints about the social and economic cost, estimated at $2 million, of protecting Thompson and Venables; an op-ed in the Times declared, “[T]o hold that the State is obliged morally to provide greater protection for two of its most evil subjects than it affords citizens who have committed no crime is incomprehensible.” Still, as an op-ed in the Sunday Times observed, “[T]he reason [the expensive protection is necessary] is that their lives are in danger from the head of media steam that has turned them into monsters.”

The press was particularly interested in the terms of the protection order that bans distribution of new pictures, film, or voice recordings of the killers and forbids the publication of anything that might lead to their identification. The Manchester Evening News reportedly published information about the boys’ new identities in some early editions and on its Web site Saturday (the information has since been removed). The London Evening Standard reported that foreign publications—specifically Interviu of Spain, Espresso of Italy, and Germany’s Stern Bild—”would have no hesitation” about printing pictures of Thompson and Venables and that Espresso “reportedly” indicated it would pay up to $70,500 for recent photographs. A Sunday Times editorial said, “Thompson and Venables will live forever in a state of permanent dread and unease. That relentless punishment should be enough to satisfy those thirsting for revenge,” though the Independent denounced this attitude: “Too much press coverage of the release of the Bulger killers has appeared to celebrate rather than condemn the fact that they will live their lives in fear of discovery. A powerful subliminal message is being sent that they are on the run like escaped prisoners, rather than legitimately released.” The Scotsman on Sunday reminded readers that Thompson and Venables will not be the ones fearing a lynch mob: “Who would want to be a young, single man with a Liverpudlian accent moving to a new home in the next few months?”

Winnie’s revenge? Last Sunday at a rally commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Soweto student massacre, South African President Thabo Mbeki pushed away a tardy Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as she stooped to greet him, knocking off her cap. Mbeki told a TV interviewer that Madikizela-Mandela compounded the insult of arriving late at a solemn occasion by defying orders that she sit in front of the podium rather than on the stage. She told South Africa’s Sunday Independent that the incident hurt the president’s image more than hers, and reminded readers that she had been on the scene of the 1976 massacre, stoking tensions between ANC leaders, such as Mbeki, who lived outside South Africa during the apartheid era and those, like her, who stayed at home. The next general election is not scheduled until 2004, but the ANC is already working through its leadership-nomination process, which involves party organizations and branches, including the women’s league, which Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife heads. Mbeki has lost support because of his failure to tackle AIDS, deal with violence in neighboring Zimbabwe, and end political corruption; losing his temper with a popular icon of the anti-apartheid struggle might further erode his grass-roots following. Although Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of kidnapping and assault and is out of favor with party leadership, she is still popular with ANC rank and file. However, a satirical piece in the Independent sided with Mbeki: “[Madikizela-Mandela] is always late, not due to African time, but because she likes playing the dowager empress to Thabo’s young pretender. She enjoys upstaging him.”

Gay pride is global: This weekend saw gay pride celebrations around the world. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung noted that Berlin’s Christopher Street Day Parade has become a “fun summertime event” rather than a political occasion: “A protest march by a handful of brave idealists has turned into a major event that everyone and their dog turns out for.” Similarly, the Jerusalem Post quoted a participant in Tel Aviv’s festival bemoaning the depoliticization of gay pride: “There is too much carnival here. …We have to smile and cannot demonstrate enough.” Meanwhile, in Britain, the Sunday Times reported that Conservative Party leadership candidate Iain Duncan Smith’s new novel contains “quite fruity, although not pornographic” gay sex scenes. Under normal circumstances, this would simply have been interpreted as a sign of the mainstreaming of gay culture, but last week senior Conservative Norman Tebbit described Duncan Smith as “a remarkably normal married man with children,” a characterization that was widely seen as a dig at Michael Portillo, the leading contender for the leadership, who has aknowledged past homosexual experiences. Tebbit told the paper, “I suppose Iain got the gay scenes from his experience of life in the army.”