Belfast Telegraph

If you think heroin addicts deserve to die, then it is you that's lacking in humanity ...


By Fionola Meredith

A photograph of two young drug users slumped in a Belfast subway was shocking, but it was the social media reaction that really horrified Fionola Meredith.

Be honest. What did you think when you saw the photograph of two young men slumped comatose in a filthy Belfast subway, plastic syringes in hand, drug paraphernalia strewn around them?

Was your first reaction disgust? Contempt? Fear? Perhaps it was some uncomfortable mixture of all three.

There's no doubt that it was a shocking, horrifying image. One of the teenagers appeared to have the needle still stuck in his arm as he lay there beside his mate.

But what I found still more horrifying than the photograph itself was the hateful, vicious and unutterably cruel reaction to it online, on comment boards and social media.

Worthless scum. Trash. Sewer rats. Put them to sleep. Dump them in the bin. Leave them there to die.

Here is the delightful-sounding Misscupcakecandy from Glasgow: "how pathetic this is … no shame … and decent people have to look at this …druggies are a scurge (sic) and need wiped out".

Someone called Rob, from Wrexham, appears to advocate murder. "Just take the opportunity to snuff them out while they are asleep. Plastic bag over their heads and a tight elastic band and all their trouble (sic) are over."

Since when did drug-addicts become sub-human? Since when did they deserve to die?

It's a truism that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this case, the image tells us very little, after the initial jarring impact has faded. All it shows are two young men who obviously have a very serious problem.

They also happen to be wearing hoodies and tracksuits, which for some people is a signifier of worthlessness and yet another reason to despise them. Because troubled, working-class kids clearly have less innate value than polite, well-behaved middle-class ones who know it's not nice to sit in filthy subways shooting up when people are coming home from a pleasant evening out. Right?

Would it be acceptable if they did their offensive drug-taking somewhere private?

What's striking about the online reaction is that many treat the presence of the teenagers in the subway as an almost personal affront, a terrible sight that - as Misscupcakecandy states - "decent people" shouldn't have to look at.

I'm sure that people returning from the concert at nearby Custom House Square were disturbed when they saw the young addicts and their syringes in the subway, especially if they had children with them. It's a pretty squalid scene.

But we have no reason to think that teenagers were doing this as some kind of aggravation, or act of aggression. They are clearly completely out of it, oblivious to everything going on around them. In that sense, they are the opposite of aggressors - they are vulnerable and defenceless at that moment.

I'm not saying that they are sweet little angels, poor victims who bear no responsibility whatsoever for their own actions. But neither will I assume that they are evil, or corrupt, or indecent, or dangerous.

The truth is that I don't know anything about them. And neither do you. All we have is what we see.

We have no idea of these teenagers' names, their stories, their personal histories. We don't know what kind of lives they have led until this point.

We don't know what paths they followed that ultimately led to being excoriated across the internet by anonymous ghouls, who feel no shame, or remorse, in wishing them dead.

Social media thrives on finding people to deplore, then ganging up on them en masse, in a rising screech of venomous hatred. Frequently, as in this case, it gets to the stage where the target of that hatred is widely reviled as less than human and that's the dangerous part, because once you strip someone of their humanity, anything goes.

Very little of the reaction to the photograph centres on why two young men would end up slumped unconscious in an underpass and what we can actually do about it.

It's much easier to treat addicts as vermin who should be exterminated, rather than to try to understand the nature of drug addiction and why it has such a deadly grip in cities like Belfast.

Time after time, we have been warned that the problem is spiralling out of control, by doctors, social workers, addiction support groups.

Just this week, a coroner at the inquest into the death of a young man who died after taking one ecstasy tablet said that Northern Ireland is facing a "tidal wave" of drug-related deaths.

At the same inquest, state pathologist Dr James Lyness said that they faced such cases every single day and that drugs are "a plague on our society".

I think we can all agree that opiates wreck people's lives. Yet nothing ever seems to happen. The litany of tragic cases continues unabated.

And the most bitter irony of all is that if those two young men in the subway called out for help right now, today, and said that they wanted to end the hell of heroin addiction, there would be no immediate help forthcoming.

That's because addicts currently have to wait at least 18 months before they can get on to the Belfast Health Trust's substitute prescribing programme, a harm-reduction initiative which weans them off heroin through the use of replacement drugs, like methadone.

That's at least a year-and-a-half continuing to take the deadly drug before assistance is available. What hope is there for addicts when even this imperfect lifeline is broken?

Anyone who thinks that giving up heroin is a simple matter of taking personal responsibility is either cruel, or deluded. Addicts should not be criminalised, or reviled. They should be given the necessary medical assistance to allow them to free themselves from the living nightmare of their addiction.

The boys lying in the subway with their syringes are human beings like the rest of us. Those who say they deserve to die are the people who lack humanity.

Belfast Telegraph

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