One of the most harrowing details in the murder of Colin Horner, who was shot dead in the car park of Sainsbury’s in Bangor in May 2017, is that his three-year-old son was with him at the time.
Bullets miss. Bullets ricochet. How desperate must his killers have been to get their target that they were prepared to risk the life of a child, or even allow a three-year-old to witness such a horrific murder?
“This is something no child should ever have to see,” declared the officer who investigated the killing, and it really does beggar belief that those words should need to be said.
Four men were jailed at Belfast Crown Court this week after pleading guilty to the murder. They were sentenced to life with a recommendation that they serve a minimum of 15 years each. Though, incredibly, the trauma that was inflicted on the victim’s young son Oscar, who’s now five, does not even constitute a separate offence in itself.
What makes the story more poignant still is that the 35-year-old victim is said to have told his mother that he was getting death threats, but added: “Don’t worry, no one will touch me when I have the children.” Colin Horner clearly had more faith in human nature than those who came after him deserved.
One might hope against hope that there are certain moral codes which even cold-blooded murderers would obey, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Indeed, the vicinity of children seems to be part of a shocking pattern in recent killings.
Last February Raymond Johnston (28) was murdered with a shotgun in his living-room in west Belfast in front of his partner and an 11-year-old child.
Before Christmas Jim Donegan was sitting in his parked car near St Mary’s Grammar School on the Glen Road in west Belfast at school home time when he was approached by a lone gunman in a hi-vis vest and shot several times. He died at the scene.
Pupils at the school had to walk past the car with his body still inside. Passersby tried to shield the children from the sight, but People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll said afterwards that he had “spoken to a lot of parents who are saying their kids are traumatised”.
On Sunday night in the case of 45-year-old father-of-two Ian Ogle, his daughter witnessed the aftermath of his fatal stabbing in Cluan Place in east Belfast.
It’s tempting to conclude that the world is going to hell in a handcart and that boundaries are being crossed in these incidents which would have been respected before; but we’re surely fooling ourselves to think what’s wrong with the world is so easily explained.
More likely is that, now there’s mercifully less violence in Northern Ireland, the dreadful reality of each murder is taking on a sharper significance. The details haven’t changed. We’re just seeing each death more clearly.
Children who grew up during the Troubles were exposed to violence with disturbing frequency, after all. DUP leader Arlene Foster was eight when her father crawled into the kitchen of the family farm with blood pouring from his head. He’d been shot by the IRA.
Later, at the age of 16, she was on a school bus when an IRA explosion targeted the driver, a part-time UDR member. He didn’t die, but Mrs Foster’s friend, who was sitting next to her, suffered serious injuries.
As parents who lived through that era, it’s a natural instinct to want to shield one’s own children from going through the same experiences.
Those recent incidents are a reminder that evil finds a way to sneak past all the defences a civilised society erects to protect children from things they shouldn’t see.
What might make the situation feel different now is the new ways which exist for everyone to become witnesses to terrible events.
In the past one would read about murders in the newspaper, or perhaps see scenes of bodies lying under white sheets on television after another terrorist atrocity. Now, the imagination is fed with more visceral and unfiltered images.
The filming of such scenes of tragedy has become much more commonplace.
Last Thursday a woman died after her car collided with a lorry on an exit off the M50 motorway in Dublin. It was reported that Jackie Griffin, who was in her 30s, was decapitated.
It was a terrible story of another young woman added to the road death statistics, but it would have been quickly forgotten beyond her family and friends had it not been for one grim development: other drivers who came upon the scene took photographs and even a video of the scene, including her dead body, and then instantly uploaded the images to the internet.
These actions were widely condemned by other users on social media and the images were removed from circulation with admirable haste; but it sparked a debate as to what has gone wrong with the moral compass of a society which needs to be reminded that it’s wrong to disrespect the dead in this way. Does that really need to be spelled out each time?
Apparently, it does. There are plenty of websites devoted to showing graphic videos and photographs of people losing their lives in accidents, or murders, or wars around the world. If challenged, those who run them insist they’re performing a public service by showing how easily life can be snuffed out and how all the more vital it is to cherish it.
That’s obviously self-serving rot. The websites exist purely for ghoulish entertainment, satisfying an appetite which has always lurked under the surface, but which can now be satisfied much more immediately.
Everyone these days has a mobile phone with a high-definition camera. It means, sadly, that the ghouls will never run out of material.
There were so many atrocities perpetrated in the darkest hours of the conflict that it’s unthinkable to imagine how much more anguish might have been heaped on the loved ones of the dead had they known that pictures were being circulated of the scene simply to invoke some shiver of horror in anonymous strangers.
The psychological effect of viewing this material remains largely unknown, but it’s unlikely to be positive. Some things are best not imagined, let alone seen.