Imagine yourself, mindlessly scrolling through facebook looking for the next YouTube video or funny comment (shouldn’t be too hard for most folks)… Only, in your simple social media travel you find a different kind of video. It’s not nyancat or Gangnam Style. It’s the forced confession of a man held in some basement somewhere, saying that he was once tried and acquitted of a rape he did indeed commit, and that he has raped again since then. And, at the end of the entire video, there’s a link for you to vote on whether whoever’s kidnapped him now should publicly hang him.
How would you vote? Hang him, or save him?
For those who haven’t seen the latest episode of the hit BBC crime drama Luther, you’ve missed out on maybe the most important ethical dilemma affecting the justice system worldwide. It’s the same dilemma that’s created real life superheroes in the US and UK, and has sparked support in Trinidadian celebrity Ian Alleyne. And, with the emotions surrounding the acquittal of George Zimmerman, there might be an ugly side to this as well.
In Luther’s London, the vigilante is a man who loses his wife to a rapist who subsequently walks free. He channels 4 years of pent-up anger into gun club membership and martial arts lessons, and takes to the streets with a sawed-off shotgun and a mission to take every single sex offender off the streets for good. Of course the people would support this – they were tired of seeing sick criminals walk right back out of courtrooms without a scratch when their sons and daughters were suffering. Someone was taking up where the justice system left off.
And in places like that, and even in my own nation of Trinidad & Tobago, the justice system has indeed left off a lot. With ridiculous repeat offense rates, an inefficient court system that tries people sometimes years after their crime, and the even scarier fact that none of this actually points to meaningful conviction rates, who isn’t living in fear is living in anger. The system doesn’t actually reconcile the loss of a person or family with the person who committed the atrocity.
Of course Zimmerman’s acquittal is the perfect example of this. If the voice of the people is the voice of God, then the thought that this man should go free is one of the biggest blasphemies of recent years. And where the People’s Law isn’t followed, the place is met with the People’s Wrath. If, for instance, a young Alex Fraser instagrammed the location of George Zimmerman, and called for people to help dress him up in a hoodie and shoot him…are you sure there wouldn’t be a mob at that exact spot?
I, personally, have never agreed with the ideology of vigilantism…not of the ‘Hang Dennis Cochrane’ variety anyway. I’ve always been an activist, which is my personal agency of change, and one of the things I’m against is the death penalty. Which means I’m also against exacting justice based mainly on communal vengeance. So I’m by no means saying that I agree with that idea, but I do want to say that I understand it. And understanding it also means understanding where it stems from – a broken justice system (or some say a system that works exactly as designed). If our institutions are not dishing out what they promised us, fairly and swiftly – if our justice system isn’t serving us real justice – then where do we get that justice from?
Remember, it’s that same lack of justice that makes white men join the Neighborhood Watch and got themselves guns to begin with…