Recently, teenagers have been beaten up in Derry by gangs wielding iron bars and guns - in one attack a boy's arms and leg were broken.
Nobody knows who did this, or why these attacks took place, of course. That's because this is how unofficial paramilitarism functions - very discreetly, almost invisibly, insidiously reminding us that below the surface of society and always during darkness, a secret police force is active.
This violence can be so clandestine that, when it does occur, it is almost as if it hasn't happened, unless of course you have been on the receiving end of it.
Although it seems unreal to many among the wider community, its repeated occurrence burrows into the public consciousness where it is impossible to conceal.
This secret police force is so obscure that nobody knows who or what is behind it but, in the absence of identifiable organisational responsibility, we could describe it as Provisional IRA Mark 2.
It is so familiar that people could be forgiven for thinking that those behind it might have been apostates who were driven from that organisation. In any case, the new secret police have assumed all the characteristics of their old role models.
Despite what the secret police want us to think, this is not what happens "in the absence of acceptable policing" because that lazy, self-serving cliché died of exhaustion a very long time ago when it was last uttered by Sinn Fein.
Everyone knows that there are always alternatives to battering young people with iron bars, except for that very rare kind of person who is addicted to doing it - a dependency for which all kinds of medical and psychiatric treatments are available. The simple fact is that broken teenage limbs are not the organic products of a supposedly measured or reasonable process that concludes with community-sanctioned violence.
This brutality and the desire for authority and validation that it represents are artificial impositions following a logic as brutal for the entire community as it is for those accused of, somehow, "offending".
The entire process is deliberately engineered to appear vague and its indeterminate quality is intended to cultivate a collective response along the lines of: "Well, he must have done something."
Presumably, some allegation has been levelled by this secret police force during its concealed process of judgment - even secret tribunals have to justify their existences to themselves. The accusation circulates, undisclosed to the public, and the infraction is proven by faceless judges before a secret police squad is mobilised, armed and then deployed.
The "offending" young person is beaten up and in the subsequent public discussion about the mystery - "What did he get it for anyway?" - the perceived problem evaporates, like reason under a dictatorship.
Nobody says anything; everybody moves along like they're told to and reality is eroded while the self-perpetuating myth of the enforcer, so reliant upon the damnation and isolation of broken-limbed teenagers, endures. This highly structured violence is reinforced by the ripple-effect that it causes across the wider community.
It reinforces its organisers' perception of themselves as figures of authority: "people will fear us now", they think, "we'll have more respect", "all we'll ever have to do is glare at somebody and they'll get the message", and so on.
Those involved in the attacks, in their own turn, are now blooded and have status, a role and a meaning greater than anything they have ever amounted to before. In their own eyes and, they believe, in the view of the community, they finally matter.
Imbued with this new sense of purpose and superiority they'll genuinely feel important. From this moment onward they'll exist under the impression that they, too, are now to be feared.
No group will claim these attacks because silence is the currency of terror. Fear travels most quickly across closed imaginations, transmitting rapidly from one person to the next, sealing mouths and closing minds.
Tightening its grip over communities, it is internalised, amplified and projected further inward with ever greater intensity following each attack. By generating wider acceptance of organised thuggery, fear reproduces itself and condemns us all to long-running cycles of quiet, uncommunicated dread.
At the back of the mind of every parent will be the final, awful question: "Could this happen to my child?"
The deepest wounds caused by these attacks are inflicted on the psyche of a people. The worst damage of all is caused by the silences that inhibit thought, restrict free speech and threaten to crush open criticism.
If allowed to take hold, these restrictions will dominate the material, political and psychological well-being of communities, and if they are not resisted another generation will be forced to endure the authority of cabals, militias and unofficial violence.
Dr Deaglan O Donghaile is a lecturer in the Department of English at Liverpool John Moores University