This weekend, a bank-holiday in many parts of Scotland, saw the brutal murder of three children and one adult in two separate instances. In both cases, it appears that they were killed by their fathers. The murder of children by their parents is, of course, not unique, but, within the small population of Scotland, it is an unusual occurrence. For two sets of children to be murdered on the same weekend is even more shocking. The particular motivations for these murders have not, as yet, been uncovered. Both fathers subsequently appear to have attempted suicide and are in hospital. It is interesting that these crimes follow closely to a case in Austria where a woman, and subsequently her children, were held captive in a celler by their father for over twenty-years. In this case, the father is now being described as mentally ill. Now while this may be the case, what is important to recognise is that this sort of crime is a reflection of the nature of the society in which it is committed.
I would like to suggest that it is a culture that understands children as the property of their parents, and particularly, of their fathers, that underpins and explains these events. Whether it because of the behaviour of children, as punishment towards wives, or simply due to the mental disturbance of a deranged mind, that people, and particularly men, feel that they have the right to dispose of their children, or hold them captive, is indicative of their sense of ownership over them. You might argue in the case of mental illness that they are not making a rational choice, but even irrational choices are underpinned by cultural values. Why is it that these men did not murder other people’s children, random strangers or simply commit suicide? Why, even in insanity, did it appear to be a good idea to hold a woman captive? The sense of ownership, and thus disposability, of children is so central to understandings of fatherhood that it drives even disturbed behaviour. No doubt part of that drive is related to responsibility. The suicidal man, driven to take his own life, does not want to abandon his responsibility towards his children and so end their lives, in addition to his own.
Yet, while it is important that parents are responsible for their children, there needs to be a separation between the concept of responsibility and the concept of ownership. Children are not property. They are people with full human rights, whose only ‘fault’ is immaturity. We are responsible for providing them with safety, provision and education until they reach adulthood, but that responsibility does not give us ownership over them. Their immaturity does not remove their human rights. Until we change how we understand the relationship between children and parents, these sorts of crimes will remain a part of our society.