The harrowing media reports detailing the brutal, senseless murder of Ana Kriégel make for very difficult reading. The thought of one of our own children being caught in that indescribably horrific situation is unimaginable.
Ana was only 14 when she was killed, and the manner in which she died is the stuff of nightmares. We may never understand why the two cruel, twisted individuals who lured her to her death subjected her to such terror and pain.
Their age cannot diminish the depravity of their actions, nor excuse their absolute inhumanity and savagery in planning and carrying out the murder of an innocent girl.
They are no longer Boy A and Boy B, they are convicted murderers. In my opinion, it would be an enormous mistake – and a grave injustice – to release them into society in just eight or twelve years.
Ana’s shattered parents are now enduring not just the loss of their daughter, but also the unending trauma of knowing how she died. Their agony is almost impossible for us to comprehend. Time may dim the memory, but it will not ease it.
In her victim impact statement, Geraldine Kriégel said she and her husband pace the house at night agonising about the torture Ana went through, “the horrendous pain she suffered, the sadistic violation of her beautiful pure and innocent body”.
She added that knowing Ana was left in “that squalid hellhole” for over three days after being murdered was “unbearable”.
As Mr Justice Paul McDermott said, there is no solace for the Kriégels in the process of trial and conviction. “Ana’s murder has resulted in a sentence which is lifelong. The death of a child and the manner in which it occurred has caused them deep misery and the destruction of their lives,” he said. “Even the longest sentence would end at some point, whereas the suffering of the deceased victim’s family would be permanent”.
Most of us feel utterly helpless in the face of the indescribable suffering and sorrow of Geraldine and Patric Kriégel. All we can do is pray that something – anything – will someday comfort them.
But, as they asked us to, we can also remember their beautiful, radiant, smiling daughter. And perhaps that should prompt us to urgently examine if we as a society are imparting to children the importance of being actively kind.
Geraldine Kriégel has said that Ana found it difficult to make close friends in school: she felt isolated and was sometimes bullied.
There are children like Ana everywhere, in every school, in every classroom, and they suffer daily, not just because they feel like outsiders, but because it has been decided they should be excluded. There are too few teenagers who are willing to stand up to bullies or to think differently from the pack. It’s more important to gather social capital, to be seen to be on the side of the dominant crew, than it is to be kind to someone who has been marked as a loner or a person to be ignored or isolated.
It must be a form of slow torment to face into that toxic environment day after day, especially when bullying isn’t obvious but takes the more insidious form of exclusion and avoidance.
According to researchers at Yale University, one in four children are bullied each year. In fact, they believe, the numbers are so high that they describe bullying as a public health crisis, with bullying being linked to many negative physical and mental health outcomes, including obesity, depression and higher risk of chronic disease.
Denis Sukhodolsky, an associate professor in the Yale Child Study Center says bullying is leading to higher rates of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. He believes, however, that some bullies don’t understand the harm they cause. “Nobody in their lives has explained to them what it means to hurt another person’s feelings,” he says.
That may be true some of the time, but Irish children are certainly being taught that bullying is wrong – they hear it repeatedly in specially prepared lessons and messages during all 14 years of schooling. Schools have strict anti-bullying policies, which they mostly do their best to enforce, though sometimes they feel as helpless as parents to deal with the problem.
But the message is clearly failing, and failing with devastating consequences.
Last week, with the sentencing of Ana’s killers dominating the news, we also heard from other parents who told heartbreaking stories about the harrowing outcomes for their children who were mercilessly bullied.
One mother, Jackie Fox, spoke about her efforts to bring about new laws tackling online bullying and harassment in memory of her beautiful young daughter Nicole who died by suicide in Dublin last year after suffering a campaign of relentless physical and emotional bullying. It was dreadful to hear the anguish in her voice when she revealed that those bullying her daughter seemed to get a kick from hearing that Nicole had been driven to self-harm by their behaviour.
What makes people behave in this way? How can they be so bereft of human kindness or any semblance of real compassion for other people?
Social media might exacerbate the problem, but its really just an expression of a deeper fracture, a lack of empathy and a failure to understand that kindness is more important than cheap laughs or gaining social credit.
Teenagers, with their eyes almost permanently glued to screens, may be learning from social media that its easier to laugh at people than laugh with them. Some of the most popular posts on platforms like TikTok seem to encourage getting a buzz from humiliating, maybe even hurting, others.
One recent review found that the prevalence of cyber-bullying on social media was 23%, and that a prominent theme motivating bullies was that they found it entertaining.
It seems teenagers often bully easy targets, not because they actively dislike them, but because they want to be a provider of cheap laughs. The comedian is top dog, and the bullied, isolated child is collateral damage.
Of course, the causes of bullying, much like the effects, can be complex and myriad. But I wonder if we’re doing enough to explain to kids that kindness and decency are of paramount importance?
There’s a huge emphasis in modern parenting on raising successful, happy children, but is the focus entirely on individual success and happiness? Is the message of self-fulfillment and self-care driven home to the point where, perhaps, what’s good for one child comes at the expense of others?
If going along with bullying, or not having the moral courage to call it out, gets you accepted and therefore makes you happier, is that what teenagers will do – especially if they’ve never been told to put the needs of others above their own?
Our society seems to be increasingly atomised, with a relentless focus on personal success and ambition. If our children are not told to look out for other people then maybe the outcome will be that they shrug their shoulders when others are being mistreated. They may not be actively bullying, but are they being actively kind?
Being actively kind includes calling out behaviour that targets other people, but its more than that. It also means noticing if someone seems to be isolated or shy or would benefit from a friendly or supportive interaction or from being included in a group activity.
A kind word or a friendly gesture can mean the world to someone feeling that school is unbearably hard. Generosity in kindness and thoughtfulness can only bring positive outcomes.
I don’t think that’s too much to ask of our children. And it might be a lesson for all of us adults too.