It was a hellish scene. The shaky video taken on someone’s phone showed a stolen car speeding up and down the Falls Road, doing hand brake turns at brake neck speed. Tyres and onlookers squealed; smoke filled the air. Terrified road users attempted to make it by without getting written off and pedestrians fled from the area. Just as the video came to an abrupt end, the sound of shots could be heard ringing out above the sound of the revving engine. While some young car thieves diced with death on the road, another young person was being shot in the legs only metres away. Within 24 hours of this shooting another young person- a child- was shot in the legs nearby. In fact, within the last few months there have been more than a half dozen people shot in these so called punishment shootings. How have we let our communities come to this chaotic, barbaric place yet again? And what are we to do about it?
While I am not a bleeding heart liberal, excusing the actions of the children who have been shot, my heart does figuratively bleed as these children physically bleed all over our alleyways. I think it is a shame on all of us. But there is a real problem with a relatively small group of children and young people in our communities. This group are engaging in behaviour that is troubling at the very least and, as with those who engage in car crime, life threatening and life taking at worst. This behaviour cannot be condoned. It must be tackled more effectively through the courts and through the social services.
Currently in West Belfast (and other places) there are people coming forward to tackle the problem of anti-social behaviour with an even more anti-social behaviour- pressing the muzzle of a gun to the knee of children. There are a number of reasons why I think this is a bad idea.
Firstly, I find it morally reprehensible. There is never- never- an excuse for shooting children, no matter how awful their behaviour is. It is simply child abuse. The long term damage done to these children, both physically and emotionally, is horrendous. And there can be no moral case made that it is ok ‘to meet fire with fire’. We don’t have a system of physical punishment for crime either in the UK or in Ireland. I believe this is because, we the people of these islands, have rejected this type of response to crime as immoral.
Secondly, and I address this point specifically to those people who do not share my moral outrage at the maiming of children through these attacks, it doesn’t work. Plain and simple- it doesn’t work. I grew up in West Belfast through the 70s, 80s and 90s. Throughout those decades we had very regular punishment shootings and beatings as well as other barbaric forms of punishment. And through it all, car crime and other forms of crime continued. Not only that, we are all familiar with the stories of those car criminals who, despite being shot on several occasions, went on stealing cars and driving them dangerously. There was a famous story of a car criminal who, having been shot in both legs and having to walk with crutches, drove a stolen car using those crutches to operate the clutch and accelerator. No, these attacks simply do not work.
And here is where it gets particularly harrowing- I believe the people carrying out these attacks know they don’t work. In fact, I don’t think their primary intention is to address the anti social behaviour at all. I believe their motivation is to gain credence within the communities where they operate. Shooting children, they can argue, is responding to a community need. However, they are simply using these children as currency in this bigger enterprise. How cynical.
So, how do we respond to this maelstrom of crime and barbaric punishment?
Police are hamstrung much of the time because no victim or witness will give a statement. There seems to be little in the way of forensic evidence either. It’s obvious that there is a job of work to do in mending relationships between the community and the police and to convince the community that it is ok to trust and work with the police. Our elected representatives have a role and a responsibility in helping this to happen. How powerful would it be, for example, for elected representatives and police to be seen walking the streets of the Lower Falls together, supporting each other?
Youth services are a vital resource within working class communities. Yet, we are currently facing into uncertain times in regards to the funding of our youth centres. What a statement it would be from our government if the budgets of these youth centres were ring fenced and even increased. They do so much good work with so little money as it stands.
Can we find a way to engage with ex offenders who have come out the other side in order to bring their stories to children and young people at risk of offending? Are there enough resources dedicated to this endeavour?
I heard someone say recently that if we can bring peace to the community of lower West Belfast, we are well on the way to achieving peace throughout this whole place. We owe it to the people of these communities, who have suffered so much throughout the conflict and beyond, to bring new thinking and a concerted effort to the table.
Jim Deeds is a husband, a father, an author and pastoral worker. Find him on Facebook/GymForTheSoul and on Twitter @gymforthesoul