Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: So-called liberals try to find something, anything, to blame when evil enters the world, rather than lay the guilt where it belongs, on the perpetrator

As the tragic case of Ana Kriegel shows, accepting that everyone has personal responsibility for their actions is the basis of all social order, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Ana Kriegel who was found dead in a derelict farmhouse in Co Dublin last May
Ana Kriegel who was found dead in a derelict farmhouse in Co Dublin last May
Ana Kriegel
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Ireland has endured its share of shocking murders, but there has never been a trial quite like that of Boy A and Boy B, who have been found guilty of murdering 14-year-old schoolgirl Ana Kriegel at a derelict house in north Co Dublin last May. Boy A was also found guilty of aggravated sexual assault.

Some of the evidence heard in court, such as that Ana was found with builder's tape around her neck and that her fingers were inside the tape, suggesting she was trying to get it off when she died, will prove impossible to forget.

Ana's killers cannot be publicly named because of their age. However it is, ironically, the very fact that they were both just 13 when they committed this crime, which is bound to draw more attention their way, making their identification at some point in the future more likely, if not inevitable.

Certain names and pictures have already started to leak online.

Northern Ireland seems, mercifully, to have been spared this particular phenomenon, but there have been a surprising number of similar cases of children being murdered by others their own age elsewhere in the UK and the Republic, most infamously the 1993 killing of toddler Jamie Bulger by two 10-year-old boys.

The rarity of such cases is what makes them so difficult to discuss without either sensationalising or downplaying the truth. They disturb all our comforting complacency about the natural innocence of the young.

Careful to ensure that there was no risk of a miscarriage of justice, the judge in the Ana Kriegel case specifically asked jurors to consider that young people "have an immaturity".

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Unfortunately, that consideration for the complexity of assigning guilt when perpetrators are below a certain age can breed confusion.

This leads many people looking on to believe that children should not be tried in adult courts at all, but as blank slates who couldn't have known what they were doing.

Interestingly, similar things were said recently by at least one high-profile Irish journalist after the murder of Lyra McKee.

Responding to reports that young people were involved in the riots that provided a cover for the terrorist attack which took the young journalist's life, Irish Times reporter Kitty Holland suggested that it was "not good enough to demonise kids" who were involved in trouble, adding that "all research shows we're not fully adult until our mid-20s".

Thankfully, much less effort is made to find explanations for abhorrent behaviour when it involves a sexual element.

Those otherwise minded to make excuses for the inexcusable seem to recognise that this would be going too far.

Holland's only comment so far on the Ana Kriegel verdict on social media has been to deplore misogyny against girls and women.

But if underage Derry dissidents are not to be held responsible for their actions, then why should other children equally guilty of crimes?

Either young people are accountable for their actions, or they're not.

It can't just be based on one's personal feelings.

When people cite "research" into the development of the brain as an excuse for bad behaviour by the young, it's hard to escape the conclusion that they're just hiding behind cod neuroscience to avoid confronting the awful reality that children can knowingly do evil.

Many teenagers are immature, but only a tiny number commit horrendous crimes.

Those who do so may have had their moral sense stunted by dysfunctional upbringings that inhibit the growth of empathy; young people in general are also known to have poorer impulse control and be more susceptible to peer pressure.

But just because they have certain mental limitations does not wipe the slate of personal responsibility clean.

What research has also shown is that children start to develop an instinct for empathy very early.

It's even been observed in babies.

After the age of seven, children with normal development will start to judge actions based on the good or bad intentions of the person doing them. In other words, they understand the difference between right and wrong.

Conscience - the appreciation that you shouldn't do certain things, irrespective of whether you will get into trouble for it - develops later, but not that much later.

What seems to make a difference, psychologists say, is if children have what one researcher called a "gut-wrenching" aversion to doing wrong.

It's those who can do what they know is wrong, while remaining cool as the proverbial cucumber, who need watching. They're more likely to develop criminal tendencies.

The point remains that, even if the brain's prefrontal cortex is only halfway to maturity by adolescence, halfway is far enough to expect to find a working conscience.

There is an unfortunate tendency among those who think of themselves as more liberal and enlightened than the rest of us to seek out something, anything, to blame when evil enters the world.

Some commentators have even identified the ready availability of online pornography as a cause for Ana's death.

Every aspect of these complex tragedies needs to be investigated, but it should be in addition to, not as a substitute for, laying the primary guilt where it belongs, on the perpetrator, however old he or she happens to be.

Every adult was a child once and every parent sees children at close hand, and memory and observation alike bear no other interpretation except that they know what they're doing.

The crucial question was posed by US lawyer Jean Jordan on a previous occasion when this issue came up for discussion: "If someone doesn't know the difference between right and wrong based on age, lack of brain development, or circumstances of their upbringing, how do you balance that against community safety?"

Accepting that everyone has personal responsibility is the basis of all social order.

It's about whose rights and interests come first.

Florida native Joshua Phillips was only 14 when he strangled and stabbed to death his eight-year-old next-door neighbour, Maddie Clifton, then hid her body beneath his bed for six days. In the US, children can be given sentences which mean that they will probably die in prison. He's one of them.

When asked in a recent ITV documentary, Children Who Kill, if he should be freed, Phillips said: "I think I deserve a chance. I don't think it's too much to ask.

"I think I deserve it."

Asked the same question, the victim's sister faltered, but said: "She doesn't get to walk the face of the earth again.

"Why should he?"

Sometimes, it really is that simple.

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