I couldn’t sleep last Thursday night. I live in West Belfast and there was a helicopter hovering right above our house. The noise always reminds me of older times when military helicopters were so common that we almost didn’t hear them anymore. Yes, times have changed…. Except, it seems that I was not the only one not sleeping that night. Around 11 pm a child (we still recognise those under 18 as children, right?) was taken up a side street in Turf Lodge and shot three times. He would have been shot four times except the gun jammed I have been told. Two of the shots were in each of his ankles. The third was in one of his kneecaps. Have you ever sprained your ankle? Or twisted your knee? Sore, isn’t it? Now imagine you’ve been shot- a bullet penetrating the skin, the muscle, and then the bone. Maybe one of the bullets glances off the bone (inside the joints) and lodge themselves in more muscle). White hot pain, no doubt. Now imagine you’re lying on cold ground, alone except for a few men who have nothing but hatred for you- no sympathy, no compassion, and no mercy at all. They shoot you and they leave. And you’re a child. You won’t sleep. You’ll spend the night in agony in hospital.
This child abuse- that’s what shooting a child is- is all too common in these ‘changed times’ of ours. Weekly we hear of either a beating or a shooting of a child by some sort of shadowy grouping. And for the most part, we read about it on the BBC news app or in the paper being reported as ‘non-life-threatening injuries’. While this is factually correct, it does not even begin to inform us of the devastating effects these attacks have on children. Physically and psychologically these events will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
There are many arguments given to legitimise these attacks. They often come from groups who have a veneer of political ambition about them- they claim in some way to be acting for ‘God and Ulster’ or in the name of ‘Irish freedom’. But, come on. Does anyone really believe this? Surely, we know better?
We also hear that the children who are abused and brutalised in this way have, themselves, caused misery and mayhem to others. Often this is the case, there is no doubt. But, in these ‘changed times’ or in any times for that matter, is shooting a child the way we would want our society to respond? I think it is a horror. We need to invest time and energy into the services that should be responding (better) to these children who are offending in our community. Anti-social behaviour/crime is a scourge. It grows up where we have poor infrastructure, poor investment, a lack of leadership and a lack of hope. Only a multi-agency approach involving the health, social care, police, justice and community sectors will make inroads here. Where is this response?
Earlier this week, our political representatives got very vexed about bonfires carrying sectarian and racist messages and images. And so they should have. But these fires only destroyed people in effigy. Bullets and bats destroy young lives in reality. Where is the political (and media) outcry over this horrendous maiming of our children? Are we happy to have ‘non-life-threatening injuries’ be the only narrative we produce to this shameful practice happening in our midst? We need to delve deeper into the mess of these attacks.
This will involve facing up to some difficult realities:
Many of the children attacked for dealing drugs have not paid their ‘rent’ to a paramilitary grouping that would have allowed them to deal with impunity.
Many of the children who are running amok in the community have been arrested before and are let free without restriction to bring more mayhem to our streets.
Many of these groupings carrying out the child abuse are tolerated by communities who feel powerless in the face of this antisocial behaviour- there is no real relationship in these communities with the police.
Many of our political representatives would rather play the old orange and green cards than get to grips with this issue- maybe there are no votes in it?
And many more children will be shot or beaten with nail-laden bats in the coming months if we don’t stop our reaction of collective apathy summed up by describing the horrible injuries they suffer as simply ‘non-life-threatening’.