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radical of one century
The scourge of joyriding has claimed yet another life on the streets of West Belfast. 16 year old Debbie McComb from Ballymurphy was slaughtered a short distance from her home on Friday evening as she stood talking with friends. There is a palpable anger permeating its way through the estate as more residents come to learn of the extreme callousness of those who killed Debbie McComb and injured her friend Bernadette Hall. One taxi driver who witnessed the carnage spoke of how those responsible did 'wheelies' in the middle of the road after claiming their victim's life. 'The hoods came flying down in the car and just spread right through the middle of them ... as soon as they went through they hand-braked in front of everybody, (and drove) up and down the street again' Was this some sort of macabre victory dance on wheels?
Reports from the PSNI suggest that the occupants of the car, having departed the scene, may then have robbed a garage elsewhere in West Belfast. They have shown no sympathy, no succour, no sense and no small amount of selfishness. Their colleagues in this terror-riding business have behaved likewise. Throughout yesterday they were careering through the streets at eighty miles an hour oblivious to the death already caused, wholly unconcerned about the possible fatal consequences of persisting in their activity.
What is almost certain, as has been evident since Friday night with the un-arrested spate of car violence, is that Debbie McComb will not be the last victim of car criminals. While in prison we were aghast to learn of the death of a pregnant mother at Twinbrook at the hands of car thieves. That was roughly ten years ago. Many of us speculated that such an incident would bring the craze to an end. It did not. Debbie McComb's death will not either. Appeals to the morality or sense of community responsibility of the perpetrators rarely impact in any qualitative sense. Children have been killed, others have been orphaned by the phenomenon. And yet it has continued.
Many people in these areas will testify to the free reign given by the police to joyriders to ply their trade, quite often in return for information on republican activists. For hours they can be heard terrorising some neighbourhood. Yet screeching brakes echo throughout the night and into the small hours without any sound of a siren or a flashing blue light. It is inconceivable that those tasked by the state with policing are not made aware of this. It is equally inconceivable that an instant police response would not be forthcoming if this activity were taking place in the Malone Road. The ancient philosopher Anacharsis contended that laws were like cobwebs - strong enough to hold the weak and too weak to hold the strong. In modern society that can be reworked to read that laws disregard the weak and operate in favour of the strong. The official attitude appears to be one of deeming that deprived communities can put up with social torment as long as there is no threat to the social order.
In these circumstances can anybody feign surprise if communities exercise what they feel is a right to defend themselves both against the threat from car criminals and the indifference of a law which offers little respite? The state here, as elsewhere, wishes to monopolise the use of coercive power. The justness of its claim to do so will in some part be measured by the degree to which such power coerces, in Aristotelian terms, thugs for the general good. If the exercise of such power is seen to exclude the most deprived communities from its benefits and subsequently disempowers them the likelihood increases that communities will not acquiesce in this and shall seek to employ some coercive power themselves for the sole purpose of protection.
Coercive power often is but need not be violent. Ken Livingstone in September 1999 was hardly supporting the use of violence against his neighbours when he welcomed Jack Straw's Anti-Social Behaviour Orders despite acknowledging the concerns of civil libertarians that 'old reactionaries will start to interfere in the lifestyles of neighbours of whom they do not approve'. There is no doubt that community appropriation of such power would be open to abuse and applied in a discriminatory fashion. Right wing elements in Germany in the 1930s and more recently in Guatemala waged what were essentially politically loaded campaigns against 'anti-social elements' for the purposes of community control and enforcing community obedience to totalitarian ideologies. So, failure by any community coercive power to come accompanied by structures of transparency and democratic accountability will only invite a further raft of problems. The challenge is not merely to have the right to use coercive power in principle but to ensure that it does not abuse rights in practice.
It is in the realm of human rights abuses that the Provisional IRA's handling of the problem has experienced its most serious shortcomings. Yet the violent IRA responses to the hooding problems that plague these areas is invariably the result of massive pressure from within the community for something to be done. People who do not accept the legitimacy of the state see little moral or intellectual difficulty in following that logic through and transferring their perceived legitimate allegiance to an alternative source of coercive power. And while the use of force by the IRA has patently failed, the fear remains that without such a response the problem would be immeasurably worse, as has been contended by Willie Thompson and Barry Mulholland in an article contributed to Crime and Punishment in West Belfast edited by Liam Kennedy. They argued that within the 'hood' fraternity there is a group:
of very distressed and potentially dangerous young men, who feel that they have no stake in the community and who feel they have nothing to lose. These young men pose a major threat to the community which may well increase on a return to normal methods of policing.
This is the basis of a very real fear which quite often goes unaddressed by even those genuinely concerned with opposing and criticising the punitive methods employed by the Provisional IRA. On release from prison I spoke to a member of the Lower Ormeau Road community about the hooding problem. The conversation took place less than a year after the UFF attack on Graham's bookies which saw five people lose their lives. Yet despite the antipathy of the Lower Ormeau residents toward the Loyalist group which carried out that massacre his attitude to the 'hoods' was simply: 'I wish the UFF would drive by and shoot the lot of them'. As someone who has had to tightly hug a cemetery wall on the Whiterock Road and press my baby daughter deep into my chest as car criminals raced up at incredible speeds I admit to understanding how such attitudes take hold of a person's consciousness. Anticipating that the driver might lose control and veer off the road is a frightening and unnerving experience which can terrify to the point of inducing an almost murderous anger against those involved.
Sinn Fein and SDLP councillors such as Michael Brown, Michael Ferguson and Margaret Walsh have worked tirelessly to generate alternatives to punishment attacks and find solutions to the problems that abound. Ferguson in particular has been to the fore in pushing for a much broader multi-agency approach which would incorporate state bodies. But a radical approach that not only cooperates with but also challenges the state is in need of development. As it stands the state has a panoply of powers which it can draw upon for the purpose of exiling anti-social elements from working class areas. It uses these powers in a discretionary, discriminatory and self-serving manner and sustains its exile through imprisonment. Should communities whose human rights the state fails to protect and uphold accept their lot and be denied the ability to exile those intent on wrecking the community and the future of its children? In the present environment, those now calling for the return of the 'exiles' will hardly have their arguments listened to in these communities.
vigilantism, whether or not based on political favouritism and prejudice,
should itself be exiled. But unless the community is empowered with
the strictly non-violent means necessary to exile some within it (just
as the state does) under conditions of the strictest transparency, accountability
and recourse to appeal, the debate within these communities - muted
at the best of times - as to whether the perpetrators of car crime and
other violent activities are victims of social deprivation in need of
help or 'enemies within' who need severe and summary punishment will
be settled in favour of the latter perspective. How that will prevent
the murder of others like Debbie McComb and spare families such as hers
the intolerable grief has yet to be convincingly explained.
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