Saturday, July 17, 2010

What keeps me up at night

Last night I woke up to the sounds of an angry mob in the street outside our house.

I haven't written in awhile. It's a shame because around the time of the International Criminal Court's review conference there were a lot blogworthy things going on. The time coincided with Tim, my supervisor's, visit to Uganda. For 2 weeks I was eating, sleeping and breathing debates about justice and the Acholi context. There was no time to write--only to think, listen and talk. Now, since the dust has settled I have started writing again but something a little more demanding--what I hope will be a chapter in my thesis and/or journal article. As I've sat down to write it's made me realize how much rich material I have and challenged me to start interpreting it in a way that is shareable. So far, it has felt a little like clearing my throat onto the page, but I'm hopeful my throat is almost clear and I can finally say something. In the midst of ruminating in my thoughts these past weeks, a vivid example of the exact dynamic I am writing about jolted me awake.

Our watchman and a neighbor caught a thief breaking into the kiosk nextdoor. It was 4 o'clock in the morning but it didn't take long for a large crowd of our neighbors to form and begin beating the man. They didn't call the police. We asked our watchman if someone should. "Ah, no!" He laughed. I wasn't surprised. I understood. But it still disturbed me deeply. "I have instructed them not to hit his head," he assured us. As if this would be very satisfying and now I could go back to sleep without worrying that a man's life might end tonight, less than 10 meters away from me and I did nothing. We've had a lot of conversations with him about pacifism, plus, we must have looked concerned, so he continued, "They will not kill him, the Local Councillor is there." He repeated it twice for emphasis, and maybe to keep us from running into the street and doing something rash. He warned us not to get involved since a mob is unlikely to listen and more likely to turn on us. It would probably be solved more quickly and in everyone's interest if they just handled him here and now, in our street. locally. If the police had come, everyone who was there would waste time in the police station making statements that would likely get lost or never be used. Any property that he'd stolen that they might be able to recover as a group of citizens would be confiscated by the police and likely never returned to the rightful owner. No one would expect the man to be held for long. And what would his incarceration do anyway? We learned later that he's been locked up several times before but hasn't reformed. Instead he allegedly met other thieves that he now works with. The correctional part of his punishment has yet to be successful. Besides that, from what he is yelling at the crowd around him, he is an orphan that is taking care of his brothers and sisters that are fully dependant on him. An angry response and the sound of a strong kick and a loud groan cut his plea short.

This is what happens in this space, I thought to myself, between an efficient national judicial system and local solutions that are accountable to no other higher authority. People still take justice into their own hands but with an increasing level of constraint in light of the presence of a strenthening judicial system.

Finally, the sound of fists, shoes and wooden rods against the body of another human being subsided. His piercing cries for mercy quieted to muffled sobs. But a few minutes later it began again with a few yells. I was scared. The mood of a mob changes quickly, and I wondered if the constraints on their behavior were strong enough not to rupture under the fervor and violent impulses I heard in their voices. If just one person had a slightly larger stick, if they were just angry enough to disregard the admonition of our watchman not to direct the blows below his neck, if the Local Counselor's authority was only slightly less respected, if there was a weaker sense that the police were only a mobile phone call away by one concerend community member--they might have killed him. But they didn't. They beat him, insulted him, humiliated him and forced him to give names of other thieves in the area and recovered the property he'd stolen. Now he's in the hospital. The LC later proudly showed where he'd written the record of what happened in his official book. With a smile, he guaranteed that "other thieves will think two times before they enter our area."

I can't help but wonder: if there was a history of trust built between the citizens of the area and the law enforcers and the rest of the judicial system, if the police were well trained and honest with a reputation for resisting corruption, if confiscated property was always returned to the rightful owners, if massive delays in the courts were not the norm, if just punishments were given that looked at alternative sentencing and community service, if there were systems in place that considered particular circumstances of juvenile offenders, social services for his dependents, if if rather ordinary, peaceloving, friendly and hospitable neighbors wouldn't have left their beds in the middle of the night with their crying children following behind them into the street to beat a man near to death. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they need the cathartic effect of releasing pent up aggression. But maybe, if communal harmony was better protected by an efficient judicial system there would be less aggressive feelings in general floating around or at least non-violent and trusted alternative ways of settling them.