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Malachi O'Doherty

If we want young people to behave responsibly then perhaps we need to do more than just berate them

Malachi O'Doherty


Teenagers have always had that living-in-the-moment abandon that brings both joy and peril, writes Malachi O’Doherty

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But what if your mother dies because you brought a virus into the house? It's morally no different than if you brought snakes in. (Ben Birchall/PA)

But what if your mother dies because you brought a virus into the house? It's morally no different than if you brought snakes in. (Ben Birchall/PA)

But what if your mother dies because you brought a virus into the house? It's morally no different than if you brought snakes in. (Ben Birchall/PA)

How do you tell a young person to stay away from friends and lovers? It's all very well hectoring them and bemoaning the refusal of so many to observe social distance. But it isn't easy. Many have naturally interpreted the closing of the schools as a gift to them, a holiday to enjoy while older people are fretting about that old boring virus thingy.

Stephen Nolan was trying to get through to them on his show last week in the starkest terms. Keep your distance or you are going to kill somebody.

They don’t get it. They are too dangerous to be near to now. They don’t understand their responsibility to the rest of us, not to pick up contagion and pass it on.

And this is the same everywhere. Television in the US has been carrying reports about people partying on beaches. They think it is all about themselves. No big deal.

And the ban on partying is such a taunt to the rebellious spirit. They think that they have assessed the risk, decided that a few days coughing and being nursed by mother is a fair price to pay for a hooley.

But what if your mother dies because you brought a virus into the house? It’s morally no different than if you brought snakes in.

Oh, don’t be so dramatic.

What this means is that people who have a greater sense of responsibility than the many teenagers who are letting us all down now have to take great care to avoid these young people. They are the danger.

They are the pool in which the virus will flourish and they are as toxic as if they were radioactive.

In a way, it has always been like this. It is teenagers who are the worst drivers, though they tend also to be the most likely victims of their own carelessness.

And it is teenagers that states turn to when they recruit armies and want people who’ll go to war for them.

They are not the only ones being reckless, of course. Some stupid woman on Channel 4 news the other night said that if she stayed at home she would be “giving in to it”.

And I don’t doubt that, if this had come along when I was 18, I would have been as careless and deaf to the warning that I was letting myself be a danger to others.

There is a similarity to the time when I was 18. That was when the Troubles were starting.

What brings back the feeling of that time is the sense that life has a worrying backdrop, now as then.

There is always a part of your mind that will be preoccupied by this frightening circumstance, even as you get on with working, reading a book, or talking to somebody on the phone.

And maybe it takes a special gift to be able to disregard it entirely.

I remember my father trying to order me not to go out at night and me ignoring him.

I wasn’t thinking about the grief that would come home to my family if I was killed, or injured or arrested.

I was thinking about how much I would suffer if I had to stay in the house when I could be having a couple of pints in a bar or shebeen that might be bombed next week or shot up in a paramilitary turf war.

Because that is how the teenage mind works. And but for teenage carelessness, half the children in the world wouldn’t have been born.

The young have that living in the moment abandon that brings both joy and danger.

I wonder how they will cope when their world is shut down. Where will their energy go when, as in some other countries, the police and the Army are on the street to send us home, issue us with fines, or even imprison us, if we are out when we shouldn’t be.

A month ago, it was inconceivable that a European democracy would ever try to regiment its population in this way.

In the past, when people died for our freedoms, what freedoms were they thinking about but the right to dine out, walk where you like, kiss somebody new and walk home a little drunk so long as you didn’t annoy anybody.

My generation of teenagers grew up after the Second World War.

We were the baby boom generation that produced pop music, sexual liberation and a more hedonistic approach to life than our parents had known.

One of the drivers of that social and cultural revolution was an aversion to the voice we heard from our fathers about how hard their lives had been.

You don’t know you’re living, they said. You haven’t a clue how hard life can be, they said.

A generation that had endured depression and the war was perplexed and annoyed by its own children, who seemed soft and preoccupied with froth and nonsense.

There were discussions in the newspapers then about the “generation gap”. Young people who bemoaned the failure of their parents to understand them and parents who had known hardships the children couldn’t imagine did not communicate with each other.

Dylan sang: “Don’t criticise what you can’t understand, your sons and your daughters are beyond your command; this whole world is rapidly changing.”

At the time, it seemed a bold, radical retort to parental conservatism. Now it sounds silly.

The failure to understand was on both sides.

As it perhaps is today. If we can’t get it into the heads of the feckless young that they have a responsibility to the whole of society not to let themselves become stepping stones for a virus that wants to follow them home and eat their granny’s lungs, then maybe we have to do something other than berate them.

One of the dafter comments made in the last week was that Britain didn’t need to be locked down like Italy and Spain, because the country was mature, presumably in a way that other countries are not.

This was chauvinistic narcissism, pointless humbug.

Boris Johnson owned up to the folly within two days and closed down the pubs. Relying on the maturity of the people was only going to lead to catastrophe.

That would have meant gambling not just on the maturity of the young, but of us all.

No government in a time of such crisis will take that risk.

I walk through the park and try to keep 6ft away from those I pass near and see others approach me with the same care.

As for the others, they tempt me to carry a big stick.

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