Eyes wide shut

Tags: Knowledge

In cities the world over, typically, people believe that other people’s lives are not their business, even in the face of trouble next door

Sometimes the word love means danger. For Oscar Pistorius, paralytic star athlete, a man known for his quick temper living by himself in his home near the woods, being surprised by his girlfriend in the middle of the night on Valentine’s Day, was the motive for murder. The fact that he accepted her gifts of love, and then let her sleep by his side is what makes the killing, accidental or otherwise, so horrific. What degree of crime it was will depend on whether the witnesses who heard the gunshots are taken seriously. They have come out of their quiet lives to make a valid point. That they heard gunshots, not Pistorius trying to open the locked bathroom door with a cricket bat. The witness, Michelle Burger, is very sure of that — they live next door, their window was open, it was hot and they do not have an AC in the bedroom.

It’s a typical admission of the upper class, or the upper middle class, that they heard the shots, but did not go down to check, phoned security who told them they were not the “right” security, and they then went back to sleep. Then they set out for a normal day in their lives.

This incident brings to mind a seminar organised by the Retired Police Association on “Preventive Measures against Violence Against Women” where one of the speakers was a young woman who represented the BellBajao Andolan. This trains people in villages and cities how to respond as neighbours when they hear shouting and cries, — that is, when someone is in trouble. They are trained to go up to the front door, and ring the bell till the incumbents of the troubled household respond.

In gated communities, typically, people believe that other people’s lives are not their business. They never see one another, they never attempt to let their lives cross. And when something macabre happens, the lady says, as Burger did, “I hope the poor lady’s husband is not dead, since he is not screaming anymore.” It is a typical aspect of windows wound up cultures, which we find not just in South Africa, but in Delhi too: or the arson and violence against Sikhs would not have happened in 1984.

Armed robberies, or the fear of them, are so constant, that people just imagine that intruders have entered their homes and then shoot blindly without enquiring. In Delhi, when the dacoits move around gated colonies and people are killed, the police never find any clues. When the persons are finally caught, they are usually servants who worked for the family who premeditated the crime. Quite often, it may be couriers and nephews and electricians as well. What is the judgement handed out to them when it is murder by any name?

In traditional societies, the idea of an eye for an eye was represented as the only solution. Further, penal law is repressive and immediate. Society, which has been hurt by the breaking of a rule, must be calmed, and the rules reinforced by just punishment. Emile Durkheim referred to another kind of rule of order, which is restitutive law. This is characterised as a return to order, and so the party which has been hurt, must be compensated, as well as the society be offered reprieve from the terrible damage the crime has caused. Restitutive Law is of various kinds, and capital punishment, its harshest form, represents the idea that the state is the purveyor of society’s collective conscience.

Very often, when anomie, or normlessness prevails we find that punishment either becomes harsher, (immediate hanging) or that it is spelt out in terms of new kind of rights for the predator or killer. Felons often communicate that they have no memory, they did not do it, they have been arrested wrongly, that they were not responsible, that they had bitter personal experiences.

Punishment does not necessarily bring repentance. What punishment does is make people in society feel that when injustice has been done, that injustice has been recognised and corrected by society. Reformation, in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment sense in the Siberian camp, presents the humane aspect of the possibilities of self transformation. It is not guaranteed by human nature. Civil rights activists now work with the idea that one aberration, or a series of aberrations does not by itself define the person who committed a terrible crime actually is. That’s a new way of thinking about life. Rotting for 12 or 20 years in isolation is something which can only be imagined.

(Susan Visvanathan is

professor of sociology in

the School of Social Sciences, JNU, New Delhi, and the author of Reading Marx, Weber and Durkheim Today)


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