Cathartic Outrage

Cathartic Outrage
Zainab’s killer, it turns out, was a “naat-khwan”. This is not surprising. Overt display of piety can be a mask for dark demeanors or self-righteous license for unlawful or even immoral behavior rather than an innocent observance of religious ritual or passionate belief. Symbols of religious piety are especially potent in repressed societies in which individuals usually take cover behind them for escaping from their sexual predicaments or criminal cravings.

The bloodlust for swiftly hanging the child rapist-murderer in a public square is also perfectly understandable. It is the expression of vindictive or vigilante outrage at the devilish act as much as acute frustration at the inability of the criminal justice system to provide evident results. Indeed, the ends of justice are constantly thwarted not just by the corruption of the police, the inefficiency of the investigation agencies and the incompetence of the prosecution but also by the lethargy of the courts and the indecisiveness of the administration in complying with the ends of law – hundreds of convicted murderers are stranded on death-row for years on end, awaiting a Presidential reprieve or a final verdict from the courts. The problem is compounded by a parallel system of so-called religious laws – qisas and diyat – that frustrates the ends of deterrence in modern criminal law.

The public and media rage in Zainab’s case led to a massive, unprecedented, manhunt for the killer. Politicians, judges and administrators tripped over themselves to hog the limelight. The police and intelligence agencies were marshalled; dozens of cameras were overnight installed in the family’s neighbourhood to catch signs of suspicious movement; over 1000 DNA samples were taken from family members, friends and neighbours, and analyzed. Before long, the murderer was caught and produced before an anti-terrorist court. Now begins the trial of the man and the tribulation of society. By the time he is irrevocably sentenced – let alone executed – he will be long forgotten. And the hundreds of innocent Zainabs before and after this case will continue to cast their tragic shadow on this callous state and helpless society.

How many people remember the serial killer Javed Iqbal who dissolved over 100 children in acid in less than six months, whether he was caught or surrendered voluntarily, what fate befell him and what, if any, reforms were carried out in the criminal justice system to protect women and children from wanton rape and slaughter? How many remember the outcome of the more recent case of five-year old Sumbal who was assaulted and left dead at the entrance to a hospital? Whatever happened to the gang of child sodomizers in Kasur who were caught in a social media blaze last year? Was anyone apprehended, prosecuted, convicted and punished? Indeed, since Zainab’s death, the media has daily reported assaults on girls and children across the country but no administrative attention is paid to them because their plight is tucked away in short single columns buried deep in the print media.

It is interesting that the debate in the country has turned on the pros and cons of a public hanging. An opposition party senator has opportunistically tabled a resolution for an amendment in the law to sanction public executions. The Punjab chief minister is taking credit for his administration’s success in catching the murderer and now putting the onus of suitable punishment on the courts. But Parliament is divided. So too is civil society and the media. Will a public execution brutalize society further or will it provide the critical deterrent that is missing from the equation? How are notions of vengeance, retribution, due process and justice mediated in modern democratic and accountable states? Alas, there is no sensible and informed debate in Parliament on such issues. What is tragically significant is the lack of any focus by judges and administrators on reforming the criminal justice system to protect the hundreds of thousands of little Zainabs and Sumbals who daily remain at risk. Civilized societies treat such collectively anguished moments as tragic watersheds in the social development of modern states, from which they learn and take suitable action. But is there any such understanding or urgency here?

This is election year. The PMLN government in Punjab is besieged on several fronts. The opposition is primed to exploit every weakness in the chief minister’s arsenal. By the same token, he is on a war footing to thwart their every assault. It has taken him two weeks to gear up and marshal all the state’s resources and wit, to catch the murderer. Indeed, if the same incident had happened at any other time in any other province, given the comparative poverty of governance, it is doubtful if such a Herculean effort could have been mounted with such relatively swift results.

The conclusion is inescapable. We will continue to exorcise our collective guilt by periodic cathartic expressions of outrage. But our precious children will not be any the safer until the custodians of the state wake up to legislate new laws, to reform our justice system and follow through on the application of law.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.