Sunday September 05 2010
Killers can be born and also made. So can victims. Some are born in circumstances which make their fate seem, in retrospect, inevitable. They have victimhood written all over them. Others stumble down a series of wrong turnings. It ends the same way. Afterwards, the map which led their life to its tragic conclusion is easy to decipher.
Which is not to say that it couldn't have ended differently. Lots of young girls walked down the path beside the Royal Canal where Michaela Davis's body was found last weekend without suffering the same fate, just as many young girls heading into teenagehood have drifted into dangerous or unedifying lifestyles without having to pay such a high price. Most people who take a series of wrong turnings get away with it. They're lucky. Now and then the luck runs out.
Michaela Davis is the first victim of a child killing in Ireland for five years. It's a statistic which encourages us to be complacent. But there are still questions to ask. Ireland may be a safe country, but plenty of bad things still happen to children, and they happen for a reason.
One subject dominated the blogosphere in the days following this harrowing event, summed up in a recurring question: what was a 12-year- old doing out after midnight?
To even ask the question is to invite opprobrium. Those who dared ask why parents let their children out so late at night were immediately slapped down online by others playing the compassion card. Hadn't the parents suffered enough? Blaming them wouldn't bring Michaela back. It wasn't they who had killed her. And so on. All undeniable, but it didn't stop people wondering. When tragedy strikes, you relate it to your own life. Parents who wouldn't dream of letting their 12-year-old daughters out at midnight couldn't help making the connection between the fact that Michaela was and what happened.
Not so, they were told. This could have happened at eight o'clock in the evening. It could have happened to anybody. Missing the point that it didn't. It happened to a 12-year-old girl who was out after midnight. There is no need to invent hypothetical scenarios. The fact that she was a 12-year-old out after midnight is as relevant as the possible exploitation of a vulnerable pre-teen, which is now being explored by gardai.
Yet the parent issue is the one issue which it is considered insensitive to approach. It's understandable for friends and well-wishers not to want to burden grieving parents with guilt. But there's a less admirable reason for skirting around the issue too, which is the moral cowardice of not wanting to say uncomfortable things which might make us feel uncomfortable in turn. It's selfishness masquerading as concern.
It's not exactly indiscriminately applied either. The parenting skills of Gerry and Kate McCann were certainly put under the microscope when their three-year-old daughter Madeleine disappeared from an unsupervised hotel room in the Algarve.
Likewise, as many pointed out in the online bulletin boards, the HSE and social services have been subjected to harsh criticism and demands for answers when children in their care have either disappeared or had harm come to them. When a child becomes involved in underage promiscuity or drink or drugs or, God forbid, dies in the care of the State, it is a given that the State has failed. So it's fair to harshly blame official agencies which have assumed the parental role, as in the case of the teenage girl in Donegal who was being passed around the local male population -- and indeed to blame the parents who, for whatever reason, are unable to carry out their parental duties and have abnegated that responsibility to the State in the first place -- but not the actual parents when a child is still in the family home?
People are reluctant to make black-and-white assertions anymore, such as that a 12-year-old should not be out at midnight, because they don't want to be seen to judge. But a society which doesn't even have the courage of its convictions to say that children should be safe at home at midnight is on a hiding to nothing.
It doesn't matter how mature or precocious they seem, or what age they can pass themselves off as if they slap on some make-up and strike the right pose. Whatever the outward appearance of adulthood, they're still children. In dangerous situations, they don't have the skills to extricate themselves from danger. It's not mollycoddling to protect them from their own emotional immaturity. That shouldn't be unsayable.
When struggling to come to terms with what happened to Michaela Davis, commentators last week fell back on the classic cliche, which is that it was every parent's nightmare.
It was. But it's also society's worst nightmare.
All too often parents convince themselves they're doing the right thing when they leave their children to negotiate the perils of the world on their own. They say they want children to have the same freedom they did when they were young. They want them to be independent. It's character building.
The problem is that the dangers for children are so much more invasive nowadays. Killings might be thankfully rarer than ever, but other dangers lurk, slow-burning and corrosive rather than violent and explosive. They eat away at childhood.
The Facebook generation disappear into a parallel universe which seldom intersects with the world of the family. Prey to the unscrupulous, they don't ask for help, because they struggle against being pushed back into the role of child -- a role they don't really understand anymore.
The priest at Michaela's funeral Mass compared her to a sunflower who tried to grow too fast. It was a pertinent image.
It's too late for Michaela. But it's not too late for society as a whole to question why an entire generation is hurtling through childhood as though it was a prison to escape from rather than a sanctuary in which to take shelter.
Indeed, I swallow a textbook everyday….a fact of which I am proud By far preferable and productive than wasting precious hours concocting and launching vitriolic attacks against others in the hope of gaining a few claps on a board frequented by lesser life form.
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