Archive December 2011
|Gun Homicides and the Honor Culture
In Asia, the idea of face is not unlike the concept in the West of dignity or respect or honor. Add guns to the torque of argument, honor and liquor and the probability of shots fired rise dramatically. Pinker concludes in The Better Angels of our Nature, page 99, that: “The essence of a culture of honor is that it does not sanction predatory or instrumental violence, but only retaliation after an insult or other mistreatment.” The issue of fitting the culture of guns with the culture of honor raises a number of issues, such as how available guns should be, the kind of weapons that should be allowed in civilian hands, and the role of the government in regulating guns in places where an insult to honor is avenged with violence.
In Thailand, on 27th December, a policeman in the southern province of Phatthalung pulled his gun and killed six other police officers. The gunman and his fellow officers had been engaged in a drinking session in the border patrol police camp canteen. Someone must have said something that didn’t go down well. The gunman then walked 200 meters outside the canteen and turned his assault rifle on himself. The investigators’ theory is that a ‘personal conflict’ led to the shootings. That is a Thai code phrase for an insult to honor.
Police are trained (in theory) in the psychology of diffusing personal conflicts, and convincing someone with a gun to drop it. Using lethal force is restricted in Thailand, as in most places.
The point is that Thai cops are products of their culture, and a face culture is an honor culture. Is this true for other cops around the world? Their attitude toward guns, threats, violence, insults and honor differ according to tradition, history and attitude. When the cork flies out of the bottle in an honor culture, it is best the man this happens to does not have a weapon. When cops are involved in an insult to honor, supposedly their training kicks in and they exercise more self-control. That training has its limits. Cops inside an honor culture have same human emotions that flare up during drinking sessions. An insult, a slight, a roll of the eyes may be all that is needed to trigger the lethal response. Without guns having been present, it is highly doubtful anyone in that canteen would have died.
No one suggests after such a massacre that the police should be disarmed. Notably, in England most of the police are not armed, and the murder rate is significantly lower than places like Thailand where the police are armed. Yet, a fairly significant number of the population there also carry guns.
More difficult is the private citizen in an honor culture who is allowed by law to carry a handgun. The Americans are undergoing a debate about expanding the right to carry concealed weapons, and to allow someone with a gun permit to carry that weapon anywhere in the United States. More than 3.5 million Americans in 40 States have permits to carry concealed firearms. Keep in mind there are approximately 100 million guns owned by Americans. Remember that on your next visit to the States only a small percentage of them have anywhere near the experience of my fellow blogger Jim Thompson with a handling guns. The overwhelming number of gun owners are like pilots who’ve logged a couple of hours in a small plane seated next to an experienced instructor and think that experience makes them Ace fighter pilots.
Some states have more lax gun permit regulations and even more lax rules to revoke a permit if the gun owner has committed a crime. The New York Times reports about a cyclist in Asheville, North Carolina, who had an argument with a motorist. Words were exchanged and Diez, the gun holder, pulled his licensed handgun and shot at the cyclist. The bullet slammed through the cyclist’s helmet. Diez later pleaded guilty to a felony count of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. Pinker also notes the Southern United States has had a long tradition of an honor culture and self-help justice.
The proponents who argue for expanding the right for civilians to arm themselves with concealed weapons say it will allow the ordinary law-abiding citizen to protect herself or himself. The idea is that the bad guys are armed and the innocent are not; that, if the bad guys had knowledge that the innocent person might have a concealed weapon, they’d think twice about committing a crime against them. Also, they point out, an armed citizenry is the first line of defense against tyranny in government.
That is the deterrence argument that propels many to support legislation authorizing widespread gun ownership. There are a couple of problems with defending this position.
First, America is one of the few places where there is no historical consensus that the monopoly of violent force should be exclusively reserved to officers of the state. Unlike Europeans, the United States never succeeded in disarming its citizens before the citizens took over the government. Most of other countries in the West (they are democracies, too) do not sanction widespread gun ownership among the civilian population. They have a different history and tradition of gun ownership. And, in European countries, fewer people die of gunshot wounds than in America.
Second, it conflates democracy with gun ownership; that armed citizens are the best defense against a State turning rogue against its citizens. Americans have a culture of distrust of government that is closer to the attitudes found in Third World countries run by dictators. The reality is that guns are artifacts from the analog past. Modern governments have multiple digital tools to oppress and repress their citizens and these weapons of intimidation are more widespread and potent than guns. CCTV cameras, predators (soon to appear in your neighborhood), data mining your email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media, acquiring your health, financial and education records. A population armed with handguns is no match for the arsenal that the world of 1984 brings.
Third, the idea of “protection” against the bad guys is always one that has everyone nodding their heads in agreement. However, the statistics show that the self-defense theory is not a solid argument, especially in an honor culture. The reality is that human beings are emotional creatures who are quick to anger. Alcohol and drugs makes them unstable. Diez, the fireman from North Carolina who almost killed the cyclist, is not uncommon. The cyclist wasn’t a bad guy. He didn’t threaten Diez. He had an argument. Diez felt insulted, his ego was bruised and he tried to kill a man over “honor.”
I’d be willing to bet that if you graphed the percentage of people who have used a handgun to protect themselves against a criminal (the self-defense claim), it would be a much smaller percentage than the percentage of people who used a gun because they felt a slight to their honor. By increasing gun ownership, I would anticipate a rise in the number of homicides where the underlying motive was to avenge the loss of face, the slur, personal argument, or the insult. People kill each other over honor. Give them licenses to carry handguns and Diez-type cases will increase. Diez lacked self-control in this situation. This is not abnormal. Expand gun ownership and that will be a good test of exactly how normal the Diez case will prove to be.
Thailand has more than double the United States’ annual death by firearms rate.
Anyone who has looked at the debate on gun ownership understands that statistics are often unreliable, and are often used inappropriately, such as failing to compare like with like conditions, traditions, histories and omitting crucial variables that make for complexity. Scholars have cautioned against concluding that widespread gun ownership causes higher murder rates. Russia, for example, has stringent gun control laws yet, between 1998 and 2004, its gun-related murder rate was four times that of the United States. Could an entrenched honor culture in Russia offer insight into the higher murder rate by firearms? The same scholars insist there is no correlation between the strength of gun laws, availability of guns and the homicide rate. Let’s admit that evidence of such correlation isn’t available. What is left unaddressed is the role of the honor culture.
Another killing in Thailand this week bears an emotionally twisted thread that links it to the Diez type of case. An arrest warrant was issued for a member of parliament, Khanchit Thapsuwan, who allegedly followed a rival politician into the toilet of a petrol station and shot him in the head eight times. He left ten .40 caliber casings scattered on the floor of the restroom where the shooting took place. There also were witnesses. Given this is Thailand, the police issued a statement, “If we knew his hideout, we would arrest him without heeding his social status.”
In Thailand the gunman’s social status is a significant factor that in some cases trumps the evidence of murder. But, in Khanchit’s case, with the social status of shooter and victim being approximately equal, the gunman is in deep trouble. What is the theory of why Khanchit shot the victim? They were political rivals and according to the Bangkok Post, “Whenever the two met, they were often heard making sarcastic remarks against each other.”
Two days after the killing, MP Khanchit showed up for a session in the Thai Parliament. A decision has yet to be made on the question of whether parliamentary immunity will be waived.
The final consideration in the argument to expand gun ownership is the costs. Gunshot victims place a significant burden on the health care resources of a country. One scholar, Phillip J. Cook, estimated that gun violence costs Americans alone $100 billion annually.” That would fund a lot of schools, clinics, bridges, roads and student loan programs. With that kind of money, a decent health care system could be universally available to all citizens.
Honor. Face. Dignity. Governments would do well to closely study the correlation of these cultural factors and how they factor into gun-related homicides before they go about authorizing the carrying of guns in the larger civilian population. Dismantling the culture of honor might, in the long run, be the best way to reduce gun-related murder rates. But that approach wouldn’t sell to voters. Arming voters does sell for those standing for election. Politics is a clash over “honor” and sometimes, as with the aforementioned recent murder in Thailand allegedly by an MP, the end result is the delivery of eight rounds to the head.
|The List of The Top Ten Wanted Criminals
THERE may have never been
one list. We don’t have to enter that debate. We can start by acknowledging that
we live in an age of list of junkies. We are all guilty; we are all addicted.
Top ten lists are catchy, fun and most of all require a short attention span.
They are like intellectual popcorn. David Letterman made his reputation by
reading clever Top Ten Lists written by his staff writers. And I also love
reading and writing a good mystery. What better mystery than tracking the
whereabouts of fugitives on the run from the law? In reality most of those on
the most wanted list are more elusive than the Higgs Boson.
Think of the Modern Top
Ten Criminal lists as the way law enforcement officials try to build the
equivalent of the particle collider. Most of the data is inclusive. The main
difference is the criminals exist in reality and are simply very hard to find,
and the jury is out whether Higgs Boson is non-existent or just hard to
The idea of Top Ten
Criminals has been around longer than crime fiction. In the case of criminal
justice systems, the entertainment value of announcing Top Ten Most Wanted Lists
has caught the attention of law enforcement agencies in most countries. The
media love lists. Newspapers, blogs, TV news all love list with pictures. These
list which used to be taped to post office walls has gone digital. We now spend
most of our lives in front of one sort of screen or another looking at
photographs. The digital world is tailor-made from the list of bad guys. We can
visualize the criminal but nothing satisfied as much as seeing an actual
picture. Law enforcement officials no longer need to describe what the criminal
fugitives on the run look like. Show their pictures on the Internet. Let the
public study their features and image the evil lurking inside that caused them
to turn to a life of crime. Let the public become the private eye who can nail a
bad guy and collect a million dollar bounty.
But there is a slight
problem with digital volunteer bounty hunters. Our resources as individuals are
completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of top ten criminal lists. Every
city, county, province, and country has a top ten list of most wanted criminals.
If that isn’t enough, within each of these political divisions are cops who are
further divided into a multitude of separate but overlapping turfs. There is a
Wanted in the World List.
If you are a crime writer
wondering who would make a good villain for your next novel, you might want to
scroll through the latest list of international gangsters, gunrunners,
revolutionaries and cartel kingpins of the lam from justice; go straight to the
Top Ten Criminals on the Planet
How about the Top Ten
Most Wanted Fugitives List? City of Vancouver has a list. The
FBI has perhaps the most famous of Top Ten lists going back to 1950. The FBI has
refined its lists by categories. So if you want to know the Top Ten
Most Wanted White Collar Criminals, they have a list. Interpol has a list. Is there any
political subdivision on the planet without a list? If you could speed read 24
hours a day it would take 572 years to go through the images returned by Google
for each of these lists.
Here’s a little game to
play on Christmas Day after eating all of that turkey. Gather the family around
with their electronic devices. Ask them to Google “Thailand’s ten most wanted
criminals.” Then ask them to click on ‘images’ and the number that comes up is
53,900,000. Given them ten minutes to assemble their top ten images. Compare
selections. An extra helping of pumpkin pie to the winner.
The Thai population is 65
million puts in perspective the 53 million faces that the Thai Top Ten criminal
list returns in Google images. Such a high return of famous criminals to ratio
of population might qualify as the most egalitarian feature of Thai society. Of
course, the Google image search return has thoughtfully included: a human-like
gnarl in a tree, Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Dick Cheney, Sandra Bullock and Steve
Jobs—a fairly wide number of individuals, some of whom are dead, have been
selected as candidates for the top ten of criminals on the run in the Land of
Smiles. There are several problems. First, there are too many foreigners.
Second, the law enforcement agencies will use this issue to vastly increase
their budget request for 2012/2013. Third, co-operation between international
law enforcement agencies will likely collapse as too many influential
politicians are on the Thai image list. And there are doubts whether those
names—such as mentioned above—are all criminals.
Perhaps this explains the
difficulty of making a Top Ten List of Criminals in the digital age. AI
development being in the relative infancy means that algorithms pick up a huge
number of false positives when assembling images. We can have more
sympathy for law enforcement officials on the ground. Finding a needle in a
haystack is easier than shifting through millions of these images. Institutional
caution and careerism means that no one whose image comes up from such a search
can be excluded as a possibility. There must be someone who will take
responsibility for deleting one of the images. And if he or she is wrong—say,
indeed Dick Cheney proved to be on the Top Ten List of Criminals in Thailand,
they could be shuttled off to a desk in North Dakota to catch rabbit
As you contemplate 2012,
remember the Maya Legend about how the earth would end in 2012 might actually
have been a warning that by 2012 our ability to discern reality from fiction may
have collapsed under the weight of just far too many distractions, images, and
associations. The evidence of brain shutdown explains a lot of what we are
reading in news reports. Soon everyone’s picture will appear on a top-ten wanted
list somewhere. I expect that in the far future, there will be final news
report will profile this vast gulag, and featuring the last free person on the
planet. Heads will roll as someone, somewhere will have to take responsibility
for this oversight, to explain how this person fell between the cracks, was
excluded and left out of some list. There will be hell to pay.
|Proportionality and Crime Suppression
Punishment is the term
often used by lawyers, judges, prosecutors and the police to describe a sentence
ordered by the State on someone found guilty of committing a crime. The idea of
proportionality is that the amount of punishment inflicted should be measured
against the damage or injury caused by the wrongdoer. The gravity of the
punishment should fit the gravity of the crime. We don’t sanction the death
penalty for shoplifters even such a penalty might have the support of retailers,
shopping mall owners, Walmart and the rest. Even though it might indeed be an
effective deterrent to shoplifting, no Western country would enact such a
We shouldn’t think that
modern sensibilities and normative values have always defined what punishment is
proportional to a crime. Our ancestors had much more capacity for the State
spilling the blood of its citizens. For long periods of history, a high level of
State violence was normal.
In 18th century
England there were 220 ‘crimes’ for which the convicted felon was hanged.
Robbery, burglary as well as murder invited the hangman’s rope. Britain
no longer has a death penalty. From the gradual dwindling of capital crimes from
220 to zero is a political and social development that indicates the majority of
the population accepts the idea that capital punishment is disproportionate to
any crime. Ninety-five countries have abolished capital punishment. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Use_of_capital_punishment_by_country
In places like China,
North Korean, Yemen, Iran and the United States capital punishment remains a
penalty imposed by the State against its citizens convicted of certain
BBC carried a
story from Saudi Arabia of the beheading of a ‘witch’. Fortunetellers and faith healers
once risked the death penalty in the West. In Europe and elsewhere, heretics and
blasphemers were burnt at the stake, nailed to crosses, torn apart on wheels,
drown and no one—at least no one who had any real voice—thought these methods
were cruel or unusual. Capital punishment often came after the person was
tortured. We shudder when thinking about such public demonstration of cruelty.
But we’d be wrong to think that human nature has largely overcome its capacity
to inflict horrific violence if the stakes are deemed high enough.
What you need to have done
to be burnt at the stake is one issue, the other is burning people at the stake
for any crime. What we find is that how a State carries out capital punishment
also has changed over time. The electric chair and hanging have given way to
lethal injection giving a quasi-medical procedure appearance to the sentence.
Our modern sensibilities no longer accept state sanctioned death by beheading,
hanging, shooting and stoning. In 2010 there were ten women and four men who
remained under sentence of death by stoning in Nigeria, Pakistan and Iran. And
along with the more graphic, cruel means of death, the idea of using torture on
citizens has moved from commonly accepted to the category of a taboo. That is
why in the Bush Administration convoluted arguments were made that
‘water-boarding’ was an enhanced interrogation technique rather than torture.
Much the same could have been said about the medieval rack.
Notions of universal
fairness and equality also define proportionality. A punishment that is
disproportionate to the crime raises issues of legitimacy of the State. In other
words, the State in maintaining law and order is considered to be under
constraint in how it inflicts punishment on its citizens. People in the
West would be shocked if a faith healer as a convicted witch were beheaded in a
public square in London or New York because the sentiment about what conduct is
criminalized changed long ago. Similarly the State is required to control the
rage and anger a vast majority of people may have toward an ethnic group or a
class of people.
In 2003 the Thai
government policy to invoke a war against drugs led to the extrajudicial killing
of at least 2,500 ‘suspected’ drug dealers. The campaign had overwhelming public
support. Even though there was evidence a large number of these people were not
drug dealers, the campaign was deemed a success. Given the nature of the crime
and the extrajudicial punishment inflicted the concept of proportionality was
The idea of severity in
terms of matching punishment to a crime shifts from one culture to another. Iran
hangs children. The nature of what is a crime is fluid as well. And of course,
there are the ‘victimless’ crimes such as gambling, prostitution and drug use
where the State seeks to regulate and control a range of behavior they believe
are adverse to the public interest, immoral, or violate a social
So far I’ve looked at
individuals who have committed acts that have harmed other individuals. Part of
the function of a State is to stop revenge and feuds arising to settle the
score. The Goldilocks Principle of not too hot or not too cold is a measured why
to satisfy the victim and his/her family and to deter others from committing the
same crime. But proportionality also applies, as a principle, to actions by the
State against foreigners in the case of war and against its own citizens in the
case of suppression of certain kinds of conduct.
In the case of war, the
armed combatants are under a duty to tailor their military actions to cause
minimal damage to civilian populations. There is a vast literature detailing
what amounts to the transgression of proportionality rule in the time of war.
The main message is that States waging war can’t ignore the damage caused to
civilian populations in their quest for military victory. The current UN war
crime trial in Phnom Penh where three members of the Khmer Rouge leadership are
in the dock for crimes against humanity, a crime that enshrines the notion of
disproportional violence against a civilian population.
institutions of State have reacted with disproportionate violence against its
own citizens who have challenged its legitimacy, authority, sanctity, or rulers.
Threats, real or perceived, by the State as being against its own interests can
easily descend into repression. Imprisoning people for political or religious
opinions contrary to the myths, legends, or official positions has a long
history. Often the punishment in these cases is swift, severe and serves as a
warning to others to fall into line with the official position.
When people fail or refuse
to do so, we see the State intervene to preserve its authority, to suppress
those challenging authority. Recent examples include police actions against OWS
demonstrators in the United States, the use of the military to repress
demonstrators in what is called the Arab Spring in the Middle East, and the use
of harsh penalties in Thailand to restrict political expression.
The reaction to the
security services in these countries has highlighted, that when the elites of a
State feel an existential threat, the first casualty is proportionality in
striking back. The modern State has been credited as civilizing the general
population, reducing dramatically citizen-on-citizen acts of violence. The UN
has sought to play the role as the civilizing influence on States themselves
when they use violence against their own citizen.
The reality is the UN can
use war crime trials such as the one going on in Cambodia is a warning about the
limits on State violence. But does it actually deter the action of the State?
From the action of many State players in modern times, the leaders have
concluded that a lot of violence can be employed against citizens before they
are hauled off to a UN war crime tribunal. These players don’t think of
themselves as ‘criminals’ and that is part of the problem. Institutions that
believe in the legitimacy of their action under law are carrying out the excess
We live in a time when
officials who are responsible for violence don’t believe that proportionality
doesn’t apply to them or their actions. The next great awakening in criminal
justice will be that State actors can’t be trusted to use measured responses
when they feel threatened. Who will civilize the State? And who will punish the
State? We are still in the 18th century when it comes to addressing
those questions. It may take another 200 years before the answers appear. The
way forward will be to bring the proportionality principle as the first line
will be to define more clearly how to monitor what justifies a State from using
its armories to inflict violence against its own people.
|The Sacredness of Justice
You’re in a foreign
country. Thailand. The police stop you. They don’t speak much English but they
demand to search you. Now. They want your passport. But it’s in your hotel room.
You’re caught off guard even though you’ve done nothing wrong but the police
insist you give them your bag. They take your bag and search it. They search
your person. They go through your cell phone messages. They tell you that
messages in violations of a law in Thailand known by the number 112 (reference
to an article in the Criminal Code) have been sent from your cell phone and
you’re in serious trouble. You’ve violated something called lese majeste and
you’ve never heard that term before. But you remember letting someone use your
phone. You tell that to the cops. But you don’t remember her name. You are told
that the SMS came from your SIM card and your cell phone and that you must prove
that you are innocent.
How do you prove that you
didn’t do something? It’s like proving there isn’t an invisible elephant in the
What do you do? Who do you
There are parts of the
world where this is a real, pressing set of questions.
When we think of criminal
justice systems most of the time we are thinking of the system that is near, the
one we grew up with, the system that we see in on TV, in the newspapers, online
as restraining criminal conduct. The muggers, killers, car hijackers, white
collar criminals all have one thing in common: they are presumed innocent. The
cops must have probable cause to search them, and they must warn suspects that
anything they say can be used against them.
That’s home base (and even
there, it can run into the ditch). It’s not abroad. At home most people accept
the criminal justice system as the legitimate authority to prevent crime and
catch criminals. A lawyer’s smart ass cutting and dicing a fine point. But you’d
be wrong. There are in a number of legal systems acts that are criminal that you
take to be a universal right. In other words, when abroad, the print in the ways
the locals write it matters. Try selling a Valentine’s card in Saudi Arabia.
Time for the religious police to throw your sentimental ass in the
Try doodling cartoons
about sacred figures and see how far your claims of artistic license and freedom
get you in the 100 meter shackled leg race in the prison courtyard. In Thailand
there has been in recent years a dramatic increase of charges (conviction is
almost always guaranteed) under lese majeste and computer crime laws. Warnings
have been given by the authorities that this Thai law applies to everyone around
the world. Press the ‘like’ button on a Facebook page deemed to be in violation
of Article 112 and the computer crime law, and you’ve committed an offense
punishable by up to 15 years in prison. In other words, you’d be in serious
trouble and it is no defense that you did this outside of Thailand or didn’t
know that it was an offense. You still go to jail.
Such attitudes are more
obvious (and better reported) in Middle Eastern countries. But you’d be wrong to
think that is the only place where fundamental freedoms are absent. Thailand is
an example where normative values about the sacredness are backed by stiff
penalties against those who seek to question them. This is in contrast, to the
Western Enlightenment idea of criticism as a positive and progressive value. We
are taught the importance of give and take in political discussions. In the
West, our normative values spotlight on justice, equity and fairness. But don’t
make the mistake of thinking this judgment is universally accepted. It’s not. In
a system of sacredness no one is ever forced to resign no matter how zealous the
enforcement. Such a legal system encourages the true believer to step forward
and undertake communal action. Those who are less committed soon fall under a
cloud of suspicion.
Ever since Oliver Stone’s
Midnight Express hit the silver screen almost thirty years ago, we’ve
become familiar with chronicles of Westerns caught up in the nightmarish gulag
of foreign criminal systems most people recoil at justice being meted out in
ways that are transparent, fair, honest and unbiased. In short, there is a
perception that if you find yourself caught in the vice of a foreign law
enforcement investigation you will likely suffer an injustice. The recent case
of the young Seattle university student who spent four years behind bars in
Italy only to be acquired of the charge of murder reinforces the idea that a
brush with the law in a foreign country can go sideways quickly.
The problem experienced by
many Westerns is compound by complacency and ignorance. First let’s deal with
complacency. You are on holiday and want to relax. You buy drugs from a stranger
who turns out to be an uncover cop. Your holiday ends along with your freedom.
Most people are aware of that risk. But sometimes they forget that the local
rules in an exotic place don’t have holiday exemption clauses for foreigners. In
those circumstances, no one blames the locals for enforcing their laws which in
many ways aren’t much different from their own laws at home.
Second on the list is
ignorance. Let me be clear: most of us are ignorant on a vast number of
subjects. It’s not a stigma not to know something. But if you are going on
holiday to a foreign destination, you can equip yourself with basic knowledge
about the laws and customs and act accordingly. You don’t need to be a lawyer or
legal scholar in the criminal justice system of a place but it is wise to learn
if this travel destination has some laws quite unlike you are familiar with at
Aside from the Article 112
cases, the ordinary run of the mill run in with the law in Thailand can become
an ordeal. A couple of recent cases in Thailand raise issues about how the
justice system works and how it is perceived to work. Often there is a wide gap
between reality and rumor. First involved a case in Pattaya where a young
Englishman (he is 25 years old) and his Thai girlfriend (aged 22 years old) is
questioned in what appeared to be a failed suicide attempt by the girlfriend.
She fell/jumped/stumbled–we don’t really know what verb to insert from the press
reports–from the seventh floor and managed and managed to survive. There has
been no follow up report on her condition and what she told the authorities had
happened. The point is that the Englishman was hauled in for questioning as a
possible suspect. A number of foreigners complained that when a foreign falls
off his condo or hotel room balcony, it is assumed to be suicide and his Thai
girlfriend is given sympathy rather than the third degree.
There is a video series
in Thailand. In the first one, jet-ski operators seek to shake down a
customer for ‘damage’ to the rented equipment. Scams like this often surface
like a bubble from a deep sea diver to the surface before
These two cases are
classic examples of the perception by foreigners that they are at a
disadvantage. The larger fear is that the local thugs are presumed to have the
police on their side in any dispute. Also there is a wide spread perception that
a foreigner will be at the receiving end of unfair, unequal treatment by the
police in circumstances where locals would not be questioned. There are many
examples where foreigners are presumed to be in the wrong and in the local
right, and the foreigner is presumed to owe compensation for damage based on the
local’s version of events. The fear, in other words, is there will be no
even-handed justice. That the deck of cards are stacked in favor of the
In Thailand that fear is
also projected by the Thais when a request is made from extradition for a crime
they’re accused of committing when abroad.
An example is the recent
case involving two mid-twenties Bangkok men who are alleged to have been
involved in a murder in Australia. A Thai court has ordered their extradition to
Australia to stand trial. This raises questions that are the opposite of the
Pattaya attempted suicide case. Here the locals are doing everything in their
power to resist justice in Australia. The Australian authorities introduced
evidence sufficient to authorize an extradition. There is no indication the
Thais wouldn’t be given a fair trial. Young men from wealthy families in
Thailand have been known to walk away free from murder cases. The Australian
case raises the issue not about whether the men will receive justice but the
underlying processes that accompany a criminal case in Thailand where the
relative rank and status of the perpetrator and victim may outweigh other
Criminal justice isn’t
some universal, agreed upon set of abstract principles, procedures, and
institutions that everyone agrees upon. They are built on local practice and
custom, embedded with relics of tribal traditions, kinship, and lineage. In the
West, societies are more pluralistic and that is reflected in how the criminal
justice system is administered. Members of the elite are sentenced to prison in
the West. Sure there are those who escape. But it isn’t a given they will
convince a cop, a prosecutor, court and jury that their status is their right to
immunity. That Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-Card is a reality in other countries. People
living in these countries have, in the past, accepted this state of affairs
though this may be changing. Arab Spring.
If the prevailing
consensus of the general population inside a country is that they belong to one
single racial, religious, ethnic group, expect this will influence their notion
of justice. Such a country has its own way of dealing with local crime and
criminals. A foreigner who is an outsider should understand justice as applied
to local and as applied to him will not likely match up. In such places, it is
right to for the foreigner to experience anxiety over his or her fate, fearing
law enforcement agents will resolve the conflict or confrontation in favor of
the locals. Or in the absence of such conflict, apply such laws against
foreigners while turning a blind eye when a local breaks the same law. The
racial purity argument pulses through many different nationalities and ethnic
groupings around the world. Mixing purity and justice is like mixing oil and
The danger is being caught
out by the uniquely criminalized norms that you’d consider to be neutral if not
actually virtues in your home country. Some countries have religious police.
Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia are three countries that come to mind. But other
countries like China and Thailand have secular equivalents (computer literate
volunteers) monitoring the Internet, Facebook pages, blogs, Twitter looking for
insults to their notions of the scared. Prosecutors stand ready to arrest and
imprison anyone (insider or outsider) who violate laws. This category of law is
carefully patrolled and guarded, ensuring that local norms and taboos attached
the sacred are strictly enforced. You should recognize that when you
travel abroad the sensitive nature of local beliefs and faith are backed up by
stringent laws with lengthy prison sentences imposed on violators. You may be
unaware of the norms as they lack a direct counterpart in your culture. But
ignorance won’t be a defense.
There are eyes and ears in
the street that hear casual remarks that violate a taboo may be not just
offensive but illegal. This is a category of crime that appears more often given
the free ranging discussions that social media and the internet encourage. In
the West, a lively exchange of opinion, criticism and argument is considered
normal. Unlike murder, rape and robbery, thought crimes once they are given
expression can land you in prison for periods as long as first degree murder
The best piece of advice
you will ever receive is this: when you travel outside the cone of the
Enlightenment steer clear of all discussions of politics and religion, and
refrain from making any negative comments on local customs and culture. Stick to
discussions about fashion, food, shopping and the weather and you’ll be safe.
Smile and ask for another one of those tall drinks with a happy little umbrella,
sit back in your beach chair, and look at the sea. Tell yourself this is the
good life. You have earned this piece of paradise. But remember, too, paradise
has its prisons ready for for those who stray from that beach chair and mingle
with the locals under the delusion that the free-ranging intellectual tradition
of open discussion of the European coffee houses are welcome. They are not. You
will be talking your way through a field of thought land mines, and if you trip
over one, say goodbye to your freedom. And there will be absolutely nothing your
embassy, your lawyer, your mother or your best friend can do to help. You will
be another casualty of the war to protect the sacred.