Friday 23 August 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Most people do the right thing. Most of the time'

Seeking simplistic answers as to how one child can murder another is a way of coping with the horror that is unleashed, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

How we can remember her: A photo of the young Ana Kriegel
How we can remember her: A photo of the young Ana Kriegel

The murder of children is, mercifully, rare. The murder of children by others the same age is rarer still. Before Ana Kriegel's death, Ireland had seen only one such case in recent years.

Darren Goodwin was 15 when he beat 14-year-old Darragh Conroy to death with a hammer in a field in Co Laois in 2003. When tried at the age of 16, he was given a mandatory life sentence for what the judge called a "premeditated, callous" attack, before later being released at the age of 28.

There have never been defendants as young as Boy A and Boy B, however. They were just 13 when schoolgirl Ana was murdered in an abandoned house in Lucan in May 2018. That's above the legal age of criminal responsibility, but still too young to be publicly identified by name. Both were found guilty of murder at Dublin's Central Criminal Court last week, with Boy A also being found guilty of aggravated sexual assault.

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When children are victims of violence, it is their very innocence which amplifies the horror. The same goes when their killers are equally young.

The world is skewed. Nothing makes sense. That's not how the brain works, however. Faced with the inexplicable, it seeks to make sense of the scanty information presented to it.

It's an evolutionary tactic that the mind plays in order to recognise danger should the same situation happen again. That's why there is an understandable urge to find a deeper meaning and message when awful tragedy strikes, because, if lessons can be learnt from it, then perhaps death wasn't entirely in vain.

It was the same when young journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead by dissident republicans in Derry in April. Commentators hoped it would be a spur to mainstream politicians to get their act together. Instead, talks look set to be suspended amid a continuing lack of agreement. Innocents die. The world wrings its hands, then moves on.

The judge in this trial, Mr Justice Paul McDermott, expressly warned jurors before they were sent out to deliberate on a verdict, not to speculate or forge their own theories about what happened, just to stick to the facts. Those were dreadful enough.

But this care not to speculate or to invent theories has not lasted into the post-verdict scenario, because everyone seems to know what Ana's murder "really" means or what lessons can be drawn.

Some politicians, including the Taoiseach, are concerned by teenagers' easy access to pornography, troubled by reports that Boy A had over 12,000, mainly pornographic, images on his phone and other devices. That's only natural. The increasing pornification of society and media has created an unhealthy "anything goes" culture which is dismantling vital moral boundaries.

As the judge warned jurors, though, it's not easy to draw definitive conclusions from the internet use of teenagers. There are thousands of boys whose mobile phones are full of pornography, and they'll never harm a soul. Stopping young people from watching online porn, no matter how well meant, is also a complex matter, as the UK is discovering with attempts to introduce a system of age verification.

Bad people have always done bad things, even before the invention of the internet.

The same goes for Ruth Coppinger's comment that "the lesson" of Ana's death is that "there needs to be a challenge to sexism and misogyny", adding that women are "subjected to abuse and violence which is bred and perpetuated by the system we live under".

The TD's concern for women's welfare is absolutely heartfelt and genuine - but it feels worryingly simplistic. It's not clear how any of the measures now being talked about would have saved Ana's life, or stop similar tragedies occurring in the future.

There's another reason to be careful about language. Young people seem to be living in an Age of Anxiety, in which life is experienced as too difficult to bear, and it's vital not to add to that anxiousness by perpetuating a message that the world is more dangerous or terrifying than it really is.

All young people should be cognisant of risk, but it's essential for positive mental health not to exaggerate threats. There is no evidence that the world is getting less safe for women, though it may feel sometimes as if it is. Ireland is one of the safest countries in the world to be a girl or woman. That doesn't mean we should be complacent, but we should start any discussion from a place of safety.

What children need when faced with these tragedies is reassurance, and we should give it to them, not wallow in narratives which suggest they are not safe in their daily lives.

In the past, faced with similar horrors, parents would have explained to their children in stark and simple terms that there are some bad people in the world, and they sometimes do very bad things, but that most people are good, and do the right thing every moment of every day.

That's not lying to children. It's confirmed by experience and observation. Even babies have been shown to express empathy to others in distress, and toddlers to have a natural sense of fairness. After the age of seven, children begin to judge actions based on the motives behind them, rather than the consequences, so will think worse of the person who breaks one plate deliberately than of the person who breaks six accidentally, meaning they have refined moral reasoning.

By their teens, most children are more than capable of distinguishing between right and wrong, and, though they may have less well developed impulse controls and be more prone to peer pressure, will largely chose not to do the wrong thing because their consciences will not allow it.

Some children never get to that stage, for various reasons. As Adrian Raine, of the University of Southern California, has written: "Kids who come from a bad home environment, who are battered from pillar to post, may become inoculated to stress. Their nervous system may simply not be wired to ring a warning bell" when crossing the boundary between right and wrong.

Without knowing more about Boys A and B, it's impossible to say for certain what factors in their background and development made them act as they did. Judge McDermott has asked for expert psychological reports to assist him in deciding how they should be sentenced for their crimes. That is a process that will have to take its course.

Right now, in society at large, the very concept of evil is unfashionable, so we're floundering to explain when dreadful things happen. Ordinary people instinctively accept the existence of this darkness, but stand accused of being an unsophisticated mob if they dare articulate that belief. Self-styled intellectuals reach instead for neuroscience or the failings of society to fill the gaps in their knowledge, as if that is any more satisfactory an explanation of how anyone could treat another human being so abominably.

What the "mob" expresses is the natural impulse to face down evil and not give it an inch. As the court was told in the trial of Boy A and Boy B, a person is presumed in law to know the "natural and probable consequences of their actions". It's the foundation of all social order. It's also the barometer by which to assert the equally important truth that most people, whatever their age, do the right thing when faced with a choice not to. Young people need to hear that message loudly too.

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