Cather­ine Deveney No such thing as ‘mon­ster’ chil­dren – only mon­ster adults with their own prej­u­dices

The Press and Journal (Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire) - - AGENDA -

Of the many books piled in cor­ners of my house as a child, there was one whose il­lus­tra­tions charmed and de­lighted me most. She may have died in the 1960s but even to­day, Ma­bel Lu­cie At­twell’s il­lus­tra­tions re­main iconic.

The book was in­hab­ited by an army of ap­ple-cheeked chil­dren, wide-eyed and plumplimbe­d, snub-nosed and dim­pled, their white an­kle socks in­evitably slumped into shiny, round-toed shoes. Kitsch, sen­ti­men­tal, they epit­o­mised ide­alised child­hood, so im­pos­si­bly cute that they brought out the pro­tec­tive in­stincts even of a child to­wards these other, smaller lit­tle peo­ple.

Some­times, I think so­ci­ety’s at­ti­tude to chil­dren is stuck some­where in one of those At­twell draw­ings. Show us a baby and we coo in­dul­gently. A po­lite 10-year-old? Grand. Here’s a bar of cho­co­late and a wee coin for your pocket, pet. Teenagers are more dif­fi­cult but are just about ac­cept­able as long as they don’t have too many opin­ions.

But what about the chil­dren who are not im­me­di­ately ap­peal­ing? The ones who are dam­aged and dam­ag­ing, bro­ken and bel­liger­ent, whose hurt and anger have be­come twisted into some­thing dan­ger­ous in­side. How much do we care then?

Shamima Begum is chal­leng­ing the re­moval of her Bri­tish cit­i­zen­ship for her links to Isis at the Spe­cial Im­mi­gra­tion Ap­peals Com­mis­sion.

Begum was lured away from home at 15 and mar­ried off to a Ji­hadist fighter just 10 days later.

In the course of the next few years, she lost three chil­dren. Her pleas to come home and live qui­etly have caused up­roar. But why? Our leg­is­la­tion is clear: 15-year-olds are chil­dren.

It was re­vealed last week that Bel­gium and other Euro­pean coun­tries are at­tempt­ing to repa­tri­ate their child na­tion­als from Syria’s refugee camps. A wise move given that those who look like At­twell tots right now will grow up in­flu­enced – or rad­i­calised – by their en­vi­ron­ment, but one this coun­try re­fused to take for Begum’s third child, who died in the camps.

This week, it emerged that Bri­tain is now also will­ing to repa­tri­ate, con­firm­ing it is work­ing with agen­cies to evac­u­ate Bri­tish chil­dren from Syria. Save the Chil­dren es­ti­mate that there are 60 or­phaned and un­ac­com­pa­nied Bri­tish chil­dren in Syr­ian camps.

But isn’t there some­thing hyp­o­crit­i­cal about help­ing chil­dren while re­fus­ing to ac­knowl­edge that, while Begum may be a young woman now, she was a child when she was lured from Bri­tain? Some say she must be made an ex­am­ple of to pre­vent oth­ers tak­ing her path. It is, surely, ex­am­ple enough that a per­son re­grets their folly and chooses peace. Are we re­ally say­ing that there is no growth, no trans­for­ma­tion, no re­demp­tion in the hu­man con­di­tion?

For me, this isn’t just about Begum. It’s about a so­ci­ety that needs to make up its mind about its at­ti­tude to chil­dren. We have seen the con­fu­sion re­peat­edly over the decades. The no­to­ri­ous case of Mary Bell, who killed two lit­tle boys the day be­fore her 11th birth­day, fore­shad­owed events 20 years later when Robert Thomp­son and Jon Ven­ables killed tod­dler Jamie Bul­ger in Liver­pool. There was the ob­vi­ous tragedy of the mur­dered chil­dren. But there was also the tragedy of the murderers, chil­dren them­selves, whose own lives had been frac­tured by adults.

Their sto­ries in­volved pros­ti­tu­tion, al­co­holism, vi­o­lence and abuse. Yet so­ci­ety’s lan­guage about chil­dren who go wrong is dis­turb­ing. By de­mon­is­ing them as ir­re­deemable “mon­sters”, we don’t have to see them as chil­dren any longer and, more im­por­tantly, don’t have to look at our own faults and fail­ings as a so­ci­ety.

Begum “knew what she was do­ing”. Did she? Who amongst us would want to be judged by our 15-year-old selves? His­tory re­peat­edly il­lus­trates the way the young glo­rify con­flict with­out fully un­der­stand­ing it: The French Rev­o­lu­tion, the First World War, the Span­ish Civil War. My own fa­ther’s brother ran off to war at 15, ly­ing about his age to do so, and was killed in Pales­tine. For what?

We can­not legally de­fine an age of con­sent and then say it doesn’t ap­ply when the child doesn’t look like some­thing out of Ma­bel Lu­cie At­twell’s gallery. We can­not change laws when we feel like it, stretch­ing and shap­ing them like moral elas­tic to fit our own prej­u­dices. They are there to de­fend prin­ci­ples that are big­ger than in­di­vid­ual cases.

The no­tion is be­ing pro­mul­gated that Begum poses a se­cu­rity threat. Of course she must face what­ever charges are ap­pro­pri­ate. Of course she must be mon­i­tored. But is it not bet­ter to mon­i­tor her in Bri­tain? It’s not lib­eral, bleed­ing-heart hokum to in­sist that we try to un­der­stand the con­text of what hap­pened, the how and why of a child be­ing rad­i­calised un­der our noses. It’s sim­ply self-pro­tec­tion.

Hanif Qadira, a for­mer govern­ment se­nior counter-rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion expert said ear­lier this year that re­fus­ing to ac­cept Begum back plays into the hands of the Isis nar­ra­tive. Se­cu­rity risk? A so­ci­ety that con­fuses un­der­stand­ing with con­don­ing, that re­verts to slo­gans rather than rea­son, that doesn’t pro­tect its own chil­dren – now that’s what I call a threat to our democ­racy.

We can­not change laws when we feel like it, stretch­ing them like moral elas­tic to fit our own prej­u­dices

Shamima Begum is chal­leng­ing the re­moval of her Bri­tish cit­i­zen­ship for her links to Isis af­ter she was lured away from home at 15 and mar­ried off to a Ji­hadist fighter just days later

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