OPINION: What next - the Inquisition?

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards

I don't think I've ever been heckled before. Ignored, certainly. Caused a small exodus of bored listeners - probably. But shouted down?

Never. Perhaps it was the subject. We were talking about evil, always a tricky one because it's a word that we find hard to define but easy to attach to individuals by way of vilifying them. I was on the platform both as someone who has written about evil - I did a biography of the Devil - and in my patron's role of the books festival where the discussion was taking place, at Dartington Hall in Devon. A few weeks back I'd been wondering out loud what patrons are meant to do. Get heckled is, I now realise, the answer.

Up there too were Esther Rantzen, doyenne of Childline, and the writer Blake Morrison, who witnessed the trial of James Bulger's killers. Once the audience started asking questions, we inevitably got on to the modern devils - the faces we put to the otherwise intangible reality of evil.

Esther named paedophiles. Blake pointed out that Venables and Thompson were just children when they committed their crimes, so could a child be evil? And I argued that no one is evil. Even the most sadistic killer is sick or mentally-ill, call it what you will. The proper response is punishment and efforts at rehabilitation. There was a bit of muttering then. Some may not be capable of it, I ploughed on - Ian Brady, for example - but we have to try.

Esther was having none of it. Child killers should be locked away on an island. Forever, I queried? Then came the heckling. Throw away the key, get real, and so on. I've been to this books festival many times and my abiding impression is that its audiences are a thoughtful lot, but on this issue the majority believed some human beings were beyond reform. So much for the liberal consensus. We seem in our attitudes to serious offenders to be going backwards rather than forwards, away from trying to understand why they did it and back to the Inquisition, the lynch mob and public burnings.

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