Wednesday 2 March 2011

Vengeance: Is it just?

One of the sad realities of life is that justice does not always prevail. Rapists and murderers do get away with their crimes, because they were never caught or if they were, they beat their charges on some technicality or worse yet, if they were convicted, they were given a lenient sentence that borders on the absurd. And when such anomalies of justice happen, an enraged citizenry either grits its collective teeth and accepts this fact of life or they do something about it. When citizens choose to do something about it, it is called vigilantism—or in more simpler terms—taking the law into their own hands.

The law allows for punishment to be meted out to wrongdoers but there is a condition to enforcing that particular law—the offender must be found guilty of the crime to which he has been charged. When the offender beats the charge on a technically, the laws pertaining to punishment cannot be legally enforced and so in effect, justice has been thwarted. When the law of punishment cannot be enforced, man's need for justice is also thwarted and it is this loss of the right to justice that brings to mind the statement of Bernard Bosanquet in his book, Some Suggestions in Ethics in which he said in part; "A community in which there is injustice, must be full of pain."

There can be no doubt that taking the law into one's own hands is breaking the law because the law does not make provisions for this kind of reaction to injustice. But the moral question is not so simplistic.

If you look to the Bible, you will find in Exodus; chapter 21, verse 12, an answer to the moral issue involving injustice and more specifically, retaliation. It says in part; "One who strikes a man so that he actually dies, is to be put to death without fail." The use of the words 'without fail' can mean— 'regardless of the fact that the murderer beat the charge'.

Even in the New Testament, one can find a similar reference. In Galatians, chapter 6, verse 7; you will find; "For whatever a man is sowing, this he will also reap."

The Holy Quran, (Koran) which is the Islamic sacred book for over 550 million Moslems around the world, refers to 'retaliation' in one of its chapters (suras). As an aside, I should point out that devout Moslems accept the teachings found in the suras of the Holy Quran as being legalistic in the sense that they lay down regulations pertaining family rights, property rights and justice, just to mention a few. In chapter 179, it says in part; "...equitable retaliation in the matter of the slain is prescribed for you..." It goes on to say; "But if one (the murderer) is granted any remission (a lessor penalty) by one's brother (family member of the victim) then pursuing the matter for the realization of the blood-money shall be done with fairness and the murderer shall pay him the blood-money in a handsome manner." unquote

As you can see from this part of the teachings of the Quran, the family member has an option of choosing to let the murderer live, providing of course that he pays a substantial amount of money to the family of his victim. In many cases, this doesn't happen and the family decides that the murderer shall
die for his crime.

Before you decide that there is no moral justification in citizens meting out private justice to wrongdoers who got away with their crimes, consider the victims, the criminals, their crimes and how they beat the system. Then put yourself in the place of the vigilantes who concluded that if there was to be justice in this world, they had to grab it for themselves for society, through the inactions of the police or through the decisions of its courts, denied them and the victims, their right to justice. Some of the methods of retaliation in the following cases were indeed strange and in some cases, horrific and yet in a sense, poetic.

Twenty-two-year-old Roberto Barbosa, a plumber's assistant living in Sao Paulo, Brazil, broke into the apartment of Maria Ramos, a 36-year-old mother of two small children. Rape was what he had on his mind and after locking the two terrified children in the bathroom, he sexually assaulted the woman. When he had enough, he pulled out a knife and stabbed her to death.

When he was picked up by the police at a later date, he was drunk and while in that drunken condition, he confessed his crime. The police very foolishly questioned him when he was drunk even though such a confession would not be accepted by a court of law. And when this killer came to trial, the court ruled that his drunken confession was unacceptable and also concluded that without the confession, the police had no other evidence that would convict this killer. Subsequently, he was acquitted and set free.

There were four housewives living in the same building as the murdered woman and they were aghast that such a brutal killer would be set free on such a technicality. They felt that he should have been found guilty and executed in the manner prescribed by the laws of Brazil—execution in the electric chair. They began planning the demise of this young killer on the day he was released. The more they discussed it, the more they were convinced that it was up to them to take action -especially since society couldn't.

They rented an empty warehouse and arranged for the electricity to be turned on. Then they hired the electrician- brother of one of the four women to build them an electric chair. When the chair was completed, three of the women went to the building and the fourth, armed with a pistol, hunted down the killer who lived nearby. When she saw him as he was coming home from work, she walked towards the warehouse and he followed her. When she slipped into the warehouse, he followed her into the building. He obviously intended to rape her. Once they were both inside the building, she turned and pointed her husband's .38 calibre revolver at the man and led him towards the chair. The three other women then made their appearance and he was ordered to strip to his shorts and to sit in the chair. At that time, it didn't have the thick electrical cables attached to it so I suppose at this particular moment, he didn't have any idea what was in store for him.

They strapped him to the chair and then when the cables were brought into view and attached to his thighs, chest and arms, it became quite apparent to him as to what was going to happen to him. All the pleading on his part was of no avail and when they had heard enough, the switch was turned on.

In 1981, when I was visiting the prisons in Florida, I was invited to discuss capital punishment with a deputy warden while I was sitting on the State's electric chair. He told me that the electric current that shoots into the body of the condemned is as high as 2000 volts and that the prisoner doesn't feel anything because the electricity at that high voltage destroys the brain before the pain registers.

But in Brazil, the voltage coming out of an electrical outlet in a building is only 220 volts. Barbosa must have suffered a painful and lingering death and must have wished during his last moments that he had been convicted and executed at least by professionals who knew how to do the job painlessly.

The four women later faced trial for murder but if they were tried before a jury, they might have been acquitted. Since this happened many years ago, I never learned what the end result was.

These four women felt that they were justified in doing what they did because they were acting out society's condemnation of the killer notwithstanding the fact that society had in effect failed to carry out its duty to punish the killer.

But this next case is an example where the person exacting vengeance, did so as a personal vendetta. Maurice Searle was a 21-year-old low life, of that there can be no doubt. He lived in the rough and tough section of Glasgow and in 1978, he took a fancy to a 17-year-old girl called Penny Potterton. The girl was running away from home, and with her mother close behind, she climbed onto this young creep's motorcycle. Her mother, Sally, went to the young man and said, "If anything happens to Penny, you will suffer the consequences." His reaction to that threat was to gun the engine and with his 17-year-old passenger sitting behind him, he raced down the street and out of sight.

Searle got the girl hooked onto heroin. For a year she lived with this man and invariably got pregnant by him. When this creep learned of it, he punched her in the face, loosening three of her teeth and blackening one of her eyes. Then after kicking her repeatedly in the stomach to kill the fetus, he threw her out onto the street and told her he was finished with her.

The girl managed to return to her home and her mother at first didn't even recognize her own daughter. The two women then embraced and the girl told her mother of what life was like living with low life and especially living with the epitome of low life, Maurice Searle.

The next day, the mother went to work (she was a nurse in a hospital) and told her daughter to wait for her return. But when Sally returned home, her daughter was nowhere to be seen. Sally did however find a note written by her daughter. The note said; "Dear Mother. I have destroyed my own life. There is no way that I can ever make things right again. I am so disgusted with my body that I do not want to live in it anymore. It is better this way. Penny."

Sally's fears were realized when her daughter's body was later fished out of the River Clyde.

Now you will remember Sally's threat to the young man should anything happen to Penny. Well, with a singleness of purpose, she exacted a form of vengeance, the like of which had never been done before or has been done since.

On August 5, 1979, she waited for him to come out of his parent's home and when she caught up to him, she drew a German army pistol from her bag and forced the young man to accompany her to her home. She said that Penny wanted to see him. He was unaware that Penny had committed suicide and was already buried. Needless to say, he was surprised when he didn't see Penny but before he had a chance to react, Sally had pulled out a hypodermic needle and injected a knockout drug into him. Within moments, he was unconscious and when he woke up, he was tied securely to the bed.

Sally then inserted a needle into his left arm and taped it there. The plastic tubing attached to the needle then went directly to a large bottle. For those who have given blood, this procedure will be familiar.

Sally told Searle that Penny had killed herself and told him why. Then she released the clamp midway down the plastic tubing. Gravity and Searle’s heartbeat was going to slowly bring about his death.

The young man who had got the girl hooked on heroin said that he was very sorry. When he realized that his life's blood was dropping into the bottle, he pleaded for mercy. Sally, remembering the condition her daughter was in when she arrived home, told him that she had no mercy to give him. The young man who had repeatedly kicked Penny in the stomach was now begging for his life. But Sally, mindful of this creep's treatment of her daughter before she killed herself, was not receptive to the young man's begging. After a while, his begging changed to that of praying and finally to mere inaudible mumblings. As his brain cells began dying off by the millions every second because they were getting less and less of a fresh supply of oxygenated blood, the young man's movements became negligible. Before his mind got to the point where he wouldn't be able to comprehend what Sally was telling him, she reminded him of her threat as to what would happen to him if anything happened to her daughter.

What is sad about this story is that Penny didn't have to commit suicide and neither did Sally who shot herself right after she called the police and told them what she had just done.

In this illustration, there can be no doubt that Searle had not committed murder and the references in the Bible and the Quran about 'life for a life’ would not apply.

But suppose Sally had chosen not to seek personal revenge and instead called the police. What would have happened to Searle? Nothing! There were no witnesses that saw him giving the girl heroin, and no witnesses who could testify that he kicked her repeatedly in the stomach. Sally was not a witness. The only witness that could have testified against him had killed herself.

Sally knew that Searle had destroyed her daughter and that society, although condemning the actions of Searle, couldn't do any more than condemn him by word alone. To a man like Searle, such condemnation would be meaningless and a joke.

The idea of letting a man like Searle live after what he had done to her only child was repugnant to a woman like Sally. If fact, there may very well be thousands of other mothers in the world who would think the same way. Sally had decided that she couldn't live without her daughter but if she was to die, so was the animal who had destroyed their lives.

There are many parents who would conclude that it is better to let a creature like Searle live. Some would even forgive him. They would say that God will exact vengeance for them and they would find solace in their belief in retribution in the hereafter. But there are many other parents who do not believe in God or the hereafter and who would make the offender pay in this life and not some supposed life in the hereafter.

I believe in justice and cannot and will not condemn Sally for what she did. Only those who have lost a child have the right.

Anastasio Somoza was a former dictator of Nicaragua. His tenure as ruler of this small Central American country was one where cruelty, torture, executions and disappearances were a way of life to the people of Nicaragua.

In 1979, the Sandinistas, the rebel forces in the country, were gaining ground and Somoza, hidden in his underground bunker, gave orders to his National Guard, not unlike that of Hitler when his forces were attacking Stalingrad that they were to shell civilian areas to deny his enemies food and shelter. The Guard's shelling of the populated areas virtually killed no rebels but it did kill many innocent civilians. As the rebels got closer to the capital, he began ordering the summary execution of all his opponents he could find. Many of these were youths who had spoken out against his regime. They were blindfolded and taken to the shores of Lake Managua and shot by the National Guard.

In May of 1979, he abandoned his bunker and after digging up the graves of his parents and taking their bodies with him, he escaped to the United States where he then boarded a luxury yacht and sailed to South America. For the next 14 months, he lived in Paraguay and despite repeated requests by the Sandinista government of Nicaragua to have him extradited to face charges of crimes against humanity, their requests were in vain.

The idea of letting such a brutal killer of thousands upon thousands of innocent victims the right to continue to live, especially to live in luxury (he pilfered the Nicaraguan treasury) was unthinkable to anyone who had lived under his regime of terror and murder. Obviously something had to be done to get even—to make Somoza pay for his evil deeds.

The mission of retribution was code-named Operation Reptile. The assassination team consisted of six men and three women and was led by an Argentine guerrilla leader who had previously fought along side the Sandinistas in their fight against Somoza.

The squad of assassins arrived in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay in April 1980. They watched and charted the former dictator's movements and on September 17th, they moved into position for the kill. As Somoza's car, driven by a chauffeur and carrying a male friend of the exiled dictator came into view, a small truck driven by one of the assassins blocked the road so that Somoza couldn't escape.

The assassins fired machine guns at the car, and many of the bullets hit Somoza. As the leader of the assassins put it, "My shots were hitting home to the extent that each shot made Somoza's body move." When all movement in the car had ceased, the assassins fired a bazooka into the car, destroying it and the bodies inside it. The assassins then escaped out of the country.

Official word from Nicaragua was that the Sandinistas had nothing to do 'directly with the death of Somoza.' But they did go on record as saying that they 'expressed joy at the death of an evil man.'

What these killers of the former Nicaraguan strongman had done was clearly murder. There are no laws in any country that permits the assassination of anyone, no matter how evil and cruel that person may have been.

But from a social point of view, was it not just as evil for the Paraguayan government to refuse the Sandinistas' request for the extradition of such an evil man?

Originally there were only two options open to the assassins in bringing justice to the dictator who had so cruelly oppressed the people of Nicaragua. The first was to kidnap Somoza and spirit him out of Paraguay and into Nicaragua for the purpose of bringing him to trial. The Israelis did something like this in May 1960 when they kidnapped Adolph Eichmann from a small suburb of Buenos Aires, Argentina and flew him undetected to Israel. Eichmann, you will remember, was the Nazi who headed the SS Jewish section that was responsible for the extermination of millions of Jews in Europe. He was subsequently tried in Israel for his crimes and hanged.

But in that particular case, the abductors had the advantage of doing their act in complete secrecy. Eichmann had become a nondescript citizen in Argentina and no one in Argentina paid close attention to his presence there. Somoza, on the other hand was known to all the members of Stroessner's government in Paraguay. Even on his fatal drive on September 17th, his vehicle was followed by another carrying armed guards. It would have been virtually impossible to sneak Somoza out of Paraguay. The assassins had only one option available to them if they intended to bring justice to Somoza. They took that option by assassinating him—or if you like—extra-judicially executing him.

Unfortunately, two innocent persons died in the process. It was an unfortunate consequence of the deed but quite frankly, it couldn't be helped. I suppose one has to consider the benefits of the actual deed and place the lives of the innocent persons on a secondary footing. If this seems cruel—you are right—it is. But were the inevitable deaths of Somoza's passenger and his chauffeur just? I will leave that question to my readers.

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