A fatal attraction to small children

12th July 1996 at 01:00
Only a psychiatrist could explain why disturbed people choose to attack young children at school. The machete assault on nursery-age children in Wolverhampton is as apparently irrational as Thomas Hamilton's massacre at Dunblane, with only the choice of weapon reducing the severity of the consequences. But in evidence to the Cullen inquiry on the same day as the Wolverhampton incident, a psychiatrist could not fully answer the question: why small children in a school?

John Baird, who specialises in forensic psychiatry, told the inquiry that Hamilton's intentions were suicidal and that he was not suffering from a mental illness. Evidence earlier in the inquiry pointed to Hamilton's resentment against those who had criticised his boys' clubs and hampered their continuance. His anger appears to have built up over the years and Dr Baird concluded that he had psychopathic and paranoid personality traits, as well as being a paedophile.

But why the murderous culmination of his problems should have been in a school where, it appears, only mistaken knowledge about the timing of the pupil assembly prevented an even greater tragedy remains unexplained. In the same way it is hard to understand why in Wolverhampton a disturbed man climbed over a wall and a fence to get into a playground.

The purpose of the Cullen inquiry is not to read the mind of an irrational criminal. But since everyone agrees that protecting schools from attacks, however rare, is well nigh impossible, the ability to understand and deal with behaviour which leads to tragedy might reduce the risk of further attacks. Unfortunately, psychiatry cannot yet provide answers. Even clinical evidence which might determine the need to refuse a firearms certificate would not be sufficiently reliable.

Lord Cullen will have to make practical recommendations. His inquiry has been conducted in a calm and coherent way, allowing the evidence to speak for itself without witnesses feeling that they were being pilloried.

With hindsight Hamilton would have been treated differently by the various authorities which acceded to or frustrated his requests. School letting policy and firearms control are among the areas where Lord Cullen will be expected to act. Mistakes were made in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, as they had been in the months and years before. But no one is looking for blame to be allotted. Throughout the inquiry attention has rightly remained focused on the issues, not on the failings of individuals, and that reflects the mood of the country.

Whatever Lord Cullen recommends by way of improved measures for school security, and however earnestly central and local government strive to implement his proposals, there can never be total protection. St Luke's school in Wolverhampton had taken reasonable precautions. Corralling young children behind bars would defeat the ends of education and give victory to fear.

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