It's time to stop turning blind eye to thug 'justice'
The sterile assumption that 'punishment' shooting victims 'must have done something' disintegrates in the case of murdered Belfast father-of-four Michael McGibbon, says Malachi O'Doherty
The murder of Michael McGibbon forces us to rethink our easy assumptions about paramilitary shootings. The first of these is that the one who got shot probably had it coming to him. If the shooting was - as obviously - brutal and disproportionate to the routine crimes that get lumped together in the political lexicon as "anti-social behaviour", the fact remains: those who swagger and scheme in certain areas are inevitably going to attract the attention of the goons with guns.
The usual logic is that while they may not have - strictly speaking - deserved it, they brought it on themselves, had it coming.
But that crass thinking by which we have been tempted to absolve our paramilitaries fails in the face of the killing of Michael McGibbon, who was not a known criminal, who had called the police for help, who was a married man with a family, with a wife who is a nurse who struggled to save him as the blood poured out of him in an alleyway.
This one is a bit more discomfiting than the usual run and we should ask why we generally pass over the others and give them little notice. Could it be that we just don't want to contemplate how brutal our paramilitaries are?
The presumption that they are really just decent people doing their best in trying circumstances has actually permeated our political culture.
Even with the dissidents, as they are called, the republican purists who never let go of the vision of the early Provos, there is talk of how they might be reasoned with, brought into the fold, and rather less of how it would be better if they were the ones getting shot.
Our political system functions in dread of the prospect of the PSNI, or worse still the Army, shooting dead a couple of these dissidents and unnerving the entire Sinn Fein support base.
But who will argue flatly with the logic that had the gunmen who killed Michael McGibbon been intercepted and come off worse, that would have been a better outcome? We don't like to think things through as plainly as that, so we sanitise the events in our minds and in our conversations. We rationalise that these things are inevitable, probably not as bad as they seem; that they are a by-product of disaffection between communities and the police.
I had a row with a senior social worker some years ago after a radio programme in which he had said that the IRA didn't actually want to shoot people in the legs, thought it had more important things to do than to pursue "anti-social elements", joyriders and drug dealers, had a war to be getting on with and regarded these young louts as clutter on the battlefield.
Having studied that whole kneecapping culture for a book, I had concluded that this was exactly what the Provos wanted most to be doing, that it was what they expended most of their effort on and that it would be the hardest part of their campaign to give up.
Back then the rationale was that we had a "policing vacuum". The Catholic community needed paramilitary policing, by this logic, because it did not trust the RUC.
The laugh of that was that you could not find a kneecapped joyrider who had not already been arrested and processed through the courts, who had not already served time in Hydebank. Often the Provos had to wait for their release before shooting them on the alleged grounds that no one else was doing anything about them.
Which is not to say that policing was not flawed, often cynical and brutal, but hardly absent.
Now we can speculate further on why the Provos put so much into their war on criminals. We now know that they were scaling down their campaign, concentrating on "spectaculars", which required highly skilled operatives, and that they had to give the rank-and-file other things to do.
If you had joined the IRA it was in the expectation that you would get to shoot people, so you got sent out to shoot joyriders and drug dealers. But there had to be other attractions in this kind of activity when loyalists and other groups took to it so readily.
Paramilitary organisations can only function if people are afraid of them. Some may think of it more as respect than fear, but they know that the consequences are the same; annoy them and you will pay for it.
Some may think of it more as common sense than intimidation that makes them tread warily. But you are still going to get a bullet in the leg. Some will even say they deserved it.
I knew fathers who beat their own sons with hurley sticks to give them a foretaste of what they would suffer if the Provos got them.
I have spoken to people who were kneecapped and held no grudge against the men who had done it, since they were only following orders, working a system that was entrenched, "the way things are".
Guns - and the willingness to use them - give people power in their communities. And when that power is as irrevocable as the State itself you play along with it, as you play along with the man who comes to read your meter.
So, add it up: paramilitaries do this stuff because it gives them power, it gives them security and it gives the men something to do when they are not doing much else. And, worse, it implicates people outside the movement and gives them a motive to cover for them.
From the person who sees a kneecapping and walks on by to the one who, cheesed off with a noisy neighbour, a car thief or a drug dealer hanging out with the kids, goes to the local hardman to have something done - all are implicated, burdened with a secret and tempted to rationalise all the more passionately that they were right.
The cold fact is that paramilitaries have much to gain from shooting their neighbours. They have always done it and, ironically, the communities they operate in have made excuses for them when they have done it.
They have accepted that many of the victims deserved what they got, were unworthy of their pity and have lived with the delusion that it can never come to their door, because they are good citizens.
But once you concede power to the likes of the thugs who shot Michael McGibbon, your own life is overshadowed by them and you have no peace.