Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Focus on Protection and Prevention, Not Punishment

Whenever we hear of a major in India crime that causes national outrage– a heinous rape or a terrorist attack, the only cries I hear, even from the sanest and most ‘educated’ of Indians are to mete out harshest of punishment to the perpetrators. The punishment methods usually suggested are chemical castration, flogging, shooting dead, or hanging. They also want it to be meted out by swiftest possible means. Right Now! Nothing else would do. The criminals don’t have a right to defend their case. They don’t deserve to be heard. They are evil and inhuman and don’t deserve justice reserved for normal folk. They have already been judged.

There are massive moral and legal issues in meting out justice in the swiftest and sternest manner. Think of one innocent amongst the thousands of actual criminals, who didn’t get access to a decent lawyer, and who was not allowed to build his case due to the exigency to ‘carry out justice’. And the case was heard and then he was hanged. We all clapped and applauded, and 2 days later, we found out that he was actually innocent. Oh, well, we murdered an innocent man. Its ok, some collateral damage is fine!

By focusing on punishment, people also miss the real issue, which is of protection and prevention. By the time is crime is committed, the ship has already sailed, and capsized. Lives have been ruined – of the victims, their families, the criminals, their families. Whether they deserve it or not, is not the point. Damage has been done irreversibly.

By focusing on punishment, we have already let the real perpetrators off scott-free. The real perpetrators who are the root cause are the State and its various components who have played a significant hand in the creation and development of the deviant individuals. In the case of social crimes, the factors that contributed to the crime are societal, cultural, and law enforcement failures. In case of terrorist attacks, these could be intelligence gathering, surveillance, and interception failures.

You might argue that government doesn’t control society’s attitudes and cultural leanings. But I think it does. A liberal government allows all voices to be heard, all faiths to be practiced, all differences to be allowed. It allows dissent and disagreement, as long as there is no crime committed (i.e damage to property, physically hurting people you disagree with; causing offense and mental anguish are not crimes). If you give confidence to the people that radical or ultra conservative beliefs are not given covert state support over other beliefs, you get a more open and free society, not where you are watching what you say, and looking over your shoulder for being non-conformist. Such a society is fundamental to serve the needs of the minority – women, children, people practising non-majority religions, atheists, gays and disabled.

The government also controls society’s attitudes and cultural leanings through education. It can invest more in education of the weaker section of the societies – women, poor, lower castes – ensuring that they have better chance to move up socially, integrate more fully with the rest of the society, and be well-represented in all important spheres of life. It can also keep education ‘agnostic’ of all religious, philosophical, and economic dogma, and let the kids make up their own minds.

Through genuine freedom and openness, and education, government can not only shape social and cultural views, it also encourages citizens to be more responsible. Promoting genuine freedoms, education, and mobility are significant 'soft' steps in protecting the people and preventing any major crimes.

The 'hard' steps in protection and prevention are with respect to law enforcement, intelligence gathering, surveillance, and interception. Again, we have seen that there are persistent systemic failures in all of these areas. Crime is frequently under-reported, police stations are notoriously understaffed, police rely on informal khabaris for intelligence gathering, and survelliance is very poor. We know of oil tankers blown off course landing within a kilometre of the Worli Sea-Link without the army/navy/police knowing about it. No major overhaul has happened after 26/11 that will give us confidence that the issues have been addressed.

All these failures on the part of the state need significant step-by-step attention and remediation. They can’t be fixed in a day and there are no easy solutions. The solutions may take time to implement and realise. Sometimes, the solutions may span different departments and jurisdictional areas. Perhaps that's why, there isn’t a willingness to address these. The state just moves from one crisis to another, focussed purely on damage control, and blame-game. Blame the criminal, we have no part to play.

However, the people, by not going after the real problems and instead just focussing only the criminal, allow the state to wash their hands off their sins. 

And that’s the real crime.
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