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How James and Sarah shaped our nation

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Mark Easton | 15:09 UK time, Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The brutal killing of a child inspires a primal response in us. It is as though the fundamental goal of all humanity, to rear the next generation and maintain the survival of the species, is being attacked by dark, destructive forces. Some choose to describe it as good versus evil.

The faces of children who, by act of extreme violence, do not survive to adulthood are seared onto our collective conscience. They become emblematic of innocence betrayed.

James Bulger and Sarah PayneToday, photographs of two such victims, James Bulger and Sarah Payne, stare out from the newspapers and television screens. The first died 17 years ago, the second a decade ago, but we are still moved by their terrible stories.

Our response, even after such a time, tends to be visceral. We demand retribution against those who callously snuffed out the sparkle in those young eyes. We have little interest in mitigation or explanation.

Politicians know the colossal power of this emotional response. They take refuge in the moral simplicity of these tragedies.

The killing of two-year-old James Bulger inspired what has been called an "arms race" of legislation against children who offend. It fundamentally changed the relationship between wider adult society and young people.

Sarah Payne's abduction and murder has contributed to a statutory system of child protection based upon the threat from the dangerous predatory paedophile. It fundamentally changed the relationship between young people and wider adult society.

That is the influence these innocent faces have upon us. Baby Peter, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, Victoria Climbie, Madeleine McCann: these tragic young people still affect the governance of our country. They have altered the way the generations relate to each other in ways that are both good and ill.

That "every child matters", in the jargon, must be a good thing. That a focus on anti-social behaviour and low-level offending has obliged the authorities to address community anxiety is a positive.

But there must be questions as to whether relatively rare incidents have inspired moral panics which result in poorly considered responses.

I have suggested here before that generational segregation in Britain might now be a greater risk to the fabric of our nation than segregation by race, religion or class. Last autumn the government published a report which finds a "pronounced separation between age groups" and warns of intergenerational "prejudice and discrimination" which could become "more directly hostile".

The research, conducted for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), reveals the generation gap to be dangerously wide.

In the report, 69% of respondents regarded people under 30 and over 70 as having little or nothing in common. Only 10% thought young and old belonged to one common group.

Segregation is the growing medium for distrust, prejudice and fear. We have seen how ghettoes incubate resentment until it explodes in violence and disorder. The racially motivated riots that scarred some of England's northern towns in 2001 were blamed on ethnic communities living "parallel lives". And yet it appears we have allowed our neighbourhoods and our nation to become ghettoised by age. Fewer than one-third of people over 70 say they have any friends under 30, and fewer than one third of under 30-year-olds have friends over 70.

(I have expanded on this argument in an essay to be published next week in Ethos

As Britain reflects on how best to protect children like James Bulger and Sarah Payne, it is clearly important that we don't lose sight of the impact those decisions have on young and old - how we see our children and how our children see us.


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