Sunday 23 April 2017

We must find the balance between fear and fearlessness

It's impossible to keep our children safe from every danger. Instead we should celebrate their freedom, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Danielle McLaughlin. Photo: PA
Danielle McLaughlin. Photo: PA

Eilis O'Hanlon

It's the photographs of Danielle McLaughlin, the Buncrana woman murdered last week while on a backpacking holiday in the Indian state of Goa, that really bring home the enormity of the tragedy.

If you just heard on the news that a young person had died alone on the other side of the world, far from home, it would be sad, of course it would; you'd feel wretched for the victim and their family.

But it wouldn't get to you in the same way it does when seeing so many pictures of the same person in full colour, unwitting and innocent, happy, with no hint of what is about to happen. How can they not know? That's the futile question which always torments the spectator afterwards. It's this haunting quality to photography which has fascinated philosophers.

The French literary theorist Roland Barthes described it: "In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: She is going to die: I shudder… over a catastrophe which has already occurred." He felt that quality pervaded every photograph.

Susan Sontag agreed. "All photographs are memento mori," the New Yorker wrote in her famous book on the subject. "To take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability." Everyone in a photograph is already a ghost.

Now that everyone under a certain age has their own Facebook profile, linked to those of all their friends, each person's pictorial memorial is so extensive that those following the story of a dreadful death can quickly come to feel as if they know the victim; and that familiarity is made all the sadder because the pictures are invariably of happy occasions, when the subject is at their most contented.

The ubiquity of CCTV only adds further poignancy. Police in Goa released what are believed to be the last pictures of Danielle (28), taken some hours before she died as a result of cerebral damage and constriction of the neck, as she walked along the beach front slightly ahead of the man who is now expected to be charged with her sexual assault and murder after reportedly confessing.

He told police other men were present when he killed Danielle but three others have been released without charge.

The Crimewatch presenter Jill Dando, who was shot on her doorstep in 2000 in still baffling circumstances, was also captured on CCTV, buying a printer cartridge in an electrical store, just minutes before going home. Her cousin said that seeing this footage was the worst part of dealing with the trauma, because it made him want to stop the film, cry out a warning, intervene. Danielle's loved ones will inevitably feel the same way.

The pitifulness comes from the juxtaposition of the mundanity of ordinary life with the knowledge of the enormity of what is to come.

It's customary to say that this is every parent's worst nightmare. There is nothing worse than losing a child, especially in such horrific circumstances, with police revealing that the suspect, a 24-year-old small time local criminal by the name of Vikat Bhagat, took Danielle's clothes and damaged her face with a broken beer bottle to thwart identification. But of course the greater nightmare was Danielle's, and it's only natural to wish in retrospect that it could have been different.

If only she hadn't left home at all. If only she'd gone somewhere different. That's the random contingency of fate.

News of young backpackers losing their lives needlessly in one part of the world provokes the longing that they hadn't been there, that they'd gone somewhere else instead.

Then tragedy strikes in one of those other places too, and it's replaced by the same fruitless wish in reverse.

This is how the brain tricks you with pointless thoughts to avoid accepting reality.

This is the cost of independence. "Off on an adventure," said one of Danielle's final Facebook posts, and you want your children to have those adventures. At the same time, you're terrified of the price they might have to pay for them. And mercifully most young people come home from those travels safely, the better for the experience, rich with memories, and many who stay behind can easily die on an Irish road.

You can't always keep your children safe. I remember as a teenager hitchhiking far and wide in lorries, sometimes with a friend, sometimes entirely alone. It was just something that we did with no thought for the consequences.

I'd be terrified if my own daughters did that, but it does give you a reserve of strength to deal with often dodgy situations. You find out that you can cope. Now when my children are away from home, I'm constantly aware of what awful things might befall them; but Danielle was surely right when she said she was "the luckiest person I know".

It's tempting to interpret those words in light of what subsequently happened, but that she felt this way, and was able to express it so that those around her knew her gratitude for the role they'd played in shaping the fearless, independent woman she was, is incalculably important.

School principal Rosaleen Grant, head of the Irish language Scoil Mhuire in Buncrana where Danielle did her Leaving Cert before going to university in Liverpool, said last week: "We always encouraged our students to travel before settling down."

Long may that continue. As they get older, people regret the things they didn't do far more than they regret those they did do, even if they were sometimes foolish, sometimes risky. Most bad decisions can be laughed over with hindsight. Regret is poisonous.

At the same time, it would be irresponsible to deny that some places are more dangerous than others. In South Africa, half a million women a year are raped; in Mexico the sexual assault and murder of females is so extensive that it has been categorised as "femicide" by the UN.

Culturally, India projects an idealised, exotic image that seduces the imagination and senses, but it can be a treacherous place to be a woman, and the rape of women travelling alone, both foreign and native, is commonplace.

In 2012, outrage over the abuse of women came to a head when a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, returning home from watching Life Of Pi at the cinema, was attacked on a bus and gang raped. She died two weeks later.

"A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy," said the driver subsequently, while a defence lawyer for one of the accused said he would burn his own daughter alive if she "disgraced herself" by going out alone at night.

A documentary on the case was banned in India for bringing shame on the country.

The freedom that young women now enjoy to travel the world should be celebrated, but doing so with the wariness that comes from knowing what's wrong with some of the countries they pass through, as well as what is magnificent about them, is essential.

There's no amount of knowledge sufficient to avert every danger; Danielle McLaughlin was an experienced traveller, who'd been to India before and had recently returned from a trip to Australia. It's about finding the right balance between fear and fearlessness.

That's the tightrope which young people have to negotiate as they head out into the world. Sometimes they fall off it. It's just another of those piteous ironies that Danielle's death ended up bearing out the truth of the tattoo that she had on her wrist, and which helped police identify her after her body was found by a local farmer: "Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery."

Sunday Independent

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