Prisoners who have just been paroled often immediately get themselves into bigger scrapes than the one that got them locked up in the first place. It’s all that sudden freedom.
It goes to their heads, they say. After years of privation they can lose the run of themselves and reoffend.
That thought occurred to me while reading about the antics of the Irish J-1 students who trashed a house in the Sunset District of San Francisco last week. If you know the city you’ll know Sunset is one of the more desirable locations in which to buy a home. So those J-1 students actually caught a big break by being rented to in the first place. Nice payback, guys.
I know a little about the kind of heady freedom that San Francisco represents to the Irish, having spent my wild teenage summers kicking around it and the Californian coastline.
For me it was a golden world of possibility, so at odds with the restrictive and forbidding atmosphere – not to mention the bad weather – of 1980’s Co. Donegal.
But some things kept me in check. I saw unforgettable glimpses of what AIDS was doing back then to the city’s gay community and the prospect of my own mortality wised me up fast. Life was a party, but if you weren’t careful the hangover could be fatal.
Clearly the young people who trashed landlord Rita Vorha’s house last week were under no such spiritual restraints. A combination of booze and boorishness quickly turned their homespun "Father Ted" episode into "Lord of the Flies."
We should probably spend as much time thinking about what they were doing before they completely trashed that house as we are thinking about the national shame that followed after it.
I think a lot of young Irish people don’t really believe that a world exists outside of the their comfortable Tayto-Barry’s-Kerrygold-Cadbury’s axis. There is us and there is not-us.
Not-us types start at Dublin Airport and extend globally. Not-us types don’t know how to make tea, and sure that means they know nothing. Ignore them.
But many of the most atrocious acts committed by human beings begin when they lose all human regard for other people, psychologists say. They claim that a lack of empathy is often at the root of the most severe psychological disorders and results.
“Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion,” writes Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge. “People who lack empathy see others as mere objects.”
If they see them at all, that is. If you dehumanize people from other cultures and traditions as an out-group, they will seem less threatening to you, but in turn you stop seeing them as people too.
How else to explain the level of callous destruction unleashed by these loaded Irish students? They ripped chandeliers from the ceilings, they broke doors and they smashed windows; they even punched holes in the walls.
Then they abandoned the place without a heads-up or a word of apology. No need to worry about it if the people left behind to foot the bill, since they aren’t even real.
Since the scandal broke some Irish students have quickly distanced themselves from the event, saying it was all the work of some unnamed outsiders who had been invited to a party and then started acting out. But the fact that no one called the police or owned up and faced the music after the fact doesn’t reflect very well on them, does it?
So it might be a good idea going forward if Irish universities and Irish consulates hosted a mandatory Before You Go workshop with intending J-1 students. Make it a condition of the granting of a J-1 visa. Someone clearly has to do the work that apparently neither the parents nor the Irish educational centers can do yet.
With freedom comes responsibility, which can be difficult to remember after your sixth pint and your first thrilling step into the bigger world. To prevent future headlines like the disgraceful ones we’ve been seeing this week – headlines do serious damage to the nation’s prestige and international standing – we’ll obviously have to do a little more than drop our kids off at the airport and just expect them to be good.