Criminals are people who have an advantage over you because they have the means of violence and are ready to use them; eliminate this advantage, acquire both the will and the means of violence, and you can have a situation where no resort to policing or the criminal justice system is necessary
The recent incidents of attempted and successful burning of criminals have generated shock in a new register, and not just because they were exceptionally cruel. Incidents in which people have been burnt to death by other people have been reported before. Six were burnt to death last year in the rioting after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Incidents in which ordinary people have treated criminals in a brutal way after apprehending them seldom raise eyebrows, and never so high. Why then is this particular manifestation of brutality so ominous?
What is new in this situation is not the burning to death of individuals or the extent of the brutality. It is that the targets of crime turned around and committed a crime against the criminals who had laid hands on them. It is that there is no clear victim to deal with in the case, but a number of less and more responsible criminals.
There has been condemnation all round, but, as people have noticed, also explicit and implicit approval of this kind of public vengeance. Someone might reason thus: We go on arguing about justice, until the word seems to lose its meaning. The symbolic victory of the deposed judges’ cause would be great, but things weren’t exactly perfect when the last lot of legally inducted judges was in the saddle, before PCO one or two or wherever you maths begins.
In such circumstances, won’t it be better if there is no need for justice? If justice were, as it were, annulled instead of being demanded or denied? Criminals are people who have an advantage over you because they have the means of violence and are ready to use them; eliminate this advantage, acquire both the will and the means of violence, and you can have a situation where no resort to policing or the criminal justice system is necessary.
In that case, you could treat the criminal-burnings not as degeneration from a state of better to worse law and order, but as a harbinger of a new social arrangement. Or not really new, as it has existed and still exists in parts of the world. It exists in our tribal areas in a modified form. We keep on wanting to integrate them properly; it might be that they’ll end up integrating us.
But what about the criminal justice system and its arm, the police? People won’t want to arrest and try the criminal, but to fight him on his own turf. If every man and woman possesses the means to defend himself and herself, if nobody affords criminals the opportunity to make victims out of them, there would be no need for policing. Think of the trouble and expense that would spare the state, not to mention the citizens. The police force is in any case criminalised. They would be disbanded and join the rest of the population. The non-criminals among them would become defending-criminals and the criminals would become attacking-criminals, for those would be the essential divisions in society as far as security arrangements were concerned.
We can envisage a limited function for the judiciary in arbitrating between criminals. Eventually, it is expected, people would begin to weary of indiscriminate killing — especially as it will lead to vendettas — and would want to lay down certain principles on who is entitled to exact vengeance. But this would not really be sneaking back to the old justice system. The difference is that that system depends on ceding the means of violence to a force deputed to provide collective security; and it also depends, if anyone hasn’t noticed it, on the willingness of people to expose themselves to possible harm on the understanding that it is better to be a victim than a perpetrator of violence, that certain possibilities of ‘civilised’ life do not exist for societies where every individual can legitimately carry out reprisals.
But the new system will make both categories redundant. There will be weaker and stronger individuals, with better or worse fire-power. And will people just be born weak and strong? Won’t there eventually be movements to give everyone an equal opportunity to be a strong criminal?
I should stop right there. This fantasy — or fear — can be further elaborated. But why not think along these lines, if we really want to know what life in a society which is not just lawless, but where lawlessness is accepted and institutionalised, can be like.
The writer is former Assistant Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times and loves to find affinities in objects where no brotherhood exists to common minds
Daily Times, 29/5/2008