In 1995 the movie 'Dangerous Minds', starring Michelle Pfeiffer, hit our screens. It was a forgettable movie with a memorable theme song called 'Gangsta's Paradise' by Coolio. The song, which was multi-award winning, was a grim, realistic portrayal of life in the gangs that terrorise the ghettoes of the United States. The famous chorus went; "We've been spending most our lives living in a gangsta's paradise."
Thirteen years ago it seemed pretty unlikely that America's gang culture, America's ghetto culture, could be exported to Ireland. But it has been, like so much else from America, only about 20 or 30 years 'late' in coming. It is here and lives among us as surely as American obesity.
'Gangsta's Paradise' could be played as the background music to the violence which has rocked Limerick city yet again this week and doing so would not be the least bit exaggerated or out of place. "As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I take a look at my life and realise there's none left." Does this exaggerate what is happening in parts of Limerick, Dublin and elsewhere? Or it is a brutally accurate depiction?
What about this line: "I'm living life do or die, what can I say? I'm twenty-three now, but will I live to see twenty-four? The way things is going I don't know."
Urban alienation has been a part of city life ever since cities came into being. There have always been alienated young people, excluded from society by factors such as poverty and a lack of education.
What is new, in post-independence Ireland at any rate, is the readiness to use extreme violence. What is new is the total power of the gangs over their members.
Previously these gangs did not have the power to so easily compel their members to kill or be killed. But now they do. When you will kill or be killed for something, that something has gained complete power and control over you.
But 'compel' may actually be the wrong word to use. Often the gangs don't have to compel their members to do anything. They want to do it and they want to do it because belonging to a gang is the only way they have of gaining status. They gain the respect of their fellow gang members by their willingness to break the law, by their ability to successfully pull off a crime, including murder. They gain it by their willingness to go to prison, and ultimately by their willingness to lay down their life for the gang.
They also gain status by being feared and hated by other gangs and by the local community. This is why it is so dangerous, a capital offence even, to 'dis', that is to disrespect a gang member. Showing disrespect calls into question their hard-won status. If they are not feared or respected what else have they got? What has it all been for?
All of us want to be respected in some way, shape or form. The vast majority of us have legitimate ways of seeking and gaining respect, whether through our jobs or our families or our local communities. Many of us gain a sense of dignity and meaning and purpose from our religious beliefs.
An alienated, poorly educated 18 year old from one of Ireland's sink estates can find no legitimate way to gain respect, to acquire status. He has no job, he has either no family, or else it is deeply dysfunctional, and he believes in nothing. Therefore he seeks out illegitimate ways. The gangs provide this.
COMMENTING on the violence in Limerick this week, Chief Superintendent Willie Keane drew particular attention to this problem of dysfunctional families. He commented: "Unfortunately these crime gangs are using young people and some of these young people come from dysfunctional families and families where there is no great parenting skills."
Limerick, in fact, has the highest rate of marriage breakdown in the country.
In some parts of the city, the married family accounts for less than half of all families, and among younger people, much less than that again.
This has consequences even though the consequences of family breakdown do not draw the proper attention of society. We regard poverty as a form of social disadvantage.
In our anxiety to be 'non-judgmental' we won't say the same thing about family breakdown even though its effects are even worse. The doctrine of non-judgmentalism is actually deeply cruel because it stops us helping people the way we should.
THE fact that a growing number of young people gain no status and no sense of respect from having a legitimate job, from believing in something meaningful and purposeful like religion, from having a stable, functional family means that the gangs, in their own horribly perverse way, are filling a gap in the market; the market for respect.
Until such time as their members find different ways of gaining respect whole areas of this country will become, and remain, a 'Gangsta's Paradise'.