Rule of law?

The other day I saw something that some of us would hardly notice, but it disturbed me.

A young man started running out of the crush of people in the evening crowd at Fourth Street bus terminus. Immediately people tried to stop him. They soon surrounded him and started beating and kicking him.

They were sure he was a thief. I don't know how sure they could be, but we must have become very brutalised if we treat anyone like that. It doesn't matter that he seemed to get away without sustaining any serious injury. That just means he was lucky, and he may not be lucky the next time. Or the next alleged thief that a crowd attacks may not be so lucky.

We seem to accept that we can treat people as if they were badly-trained dogs. Which reminds me of a group of mangy dogs on Mushongandebvu Walk that were so aggressive I had to throw a stone or two to keep them at bay, but they were extreme examples. Even dogs usually respond to a friendly voice.

Try it: use the friendliest tone of voice you can to the next fierce dog you meet. It doesn't matter what you say. It could be "My, you are ugly aren't you? And you're stupid with it. I wouldn't let you anywhere near my house, you dirty ill-mannered brute." Dogs aren't really very intelligent. They don't understand what you're saying, but they catch the tone. If you don't believe me, try shouting "Good dog!" like a sergeant-major on parade, but be sure you have your escape prepared. All the dog hears is your aggressive tone. But I'm digressing.

If we shout aggressively, chase and beat people, they will behave just as the dog does. If they retreat from you, that is only to give them a chance to plan their next attack. If you're not careful, they might stand and fight. The one thing you can be sure of is that you won't make friends of them, or force them to change their ways.

But why should we need to take the law into our own hands? What are the police for? And where are they when we need them? You may well ask.

In fact, that afternoon, three juveniles in army uniform walked into the crowd, but didn't seem to do anything. That's probably a good thing, because all they've been taught is to kick with those heavy boots of theirs. Are the cops any better?

Ask your friends and relatives in the diaspora. Some of them must live in countries where the police still remember that their job is to keep the peace. In those countries, punishment for crime is decided by the courts and there may be special people trained for the job, which is rarely pure punishment, but should include an element of re-education and reintegrating troublesome people into society.

The job of magistrates, judges and the ordinary citizens who take turns to serve on a jury, is to decide whether an accused person is innocent or guilty, and if they are guilty, what sentence will be most effective to reform the offender. Sentencing anyone to death, whatever they may have done, is an admission of defeat. It means you've decided you can't do anything to help the offender.

The job of the police is to ensure that an accused person comes to court for trial, and preferably that they come peacefully.

We've got a big job ahead of us if we are ever going to match up to that standard as a country that is ruled by law, not by force. We'll need police who can earn our trust, courts that can earn our trust, and everyone will need to learn that violence might be a last resort, if you use it at all. It certainly shouldn't be anybody's first response to anything.

Post published in: Analysis

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