The other day Andrei and I were headed back into Dar following a careless afternoon lounging on our favorite beach just south of the city. This spot has won our favor with its totally chill atmosphere, including good music, good people, good food, and an all around good vibe. En route home, we saw a huge pack of people shouting and carrying about approximately 10 yards ahead of our car. As we passed, we quickly realized this was not simply a shouting match, but rather an angry and violent mob lynching against a young man. I was embarrassingly naive enough to think this was a mere egotistical demonstration of might amongst some immature village kids who were none the wiser, a fight that may result in a few bruises and bumps but certainly nothing worse. I was wrong. We witnessed someone being killed before our very eyes, worse yet, we even saw someone running into the mob with a lead pipe, and we were completely powerless to stop it or do anything about it.
We quickly learned his transgression was a cell phone theft. The reactions, as we tried to get to the bottom of this story, were very nonchalant, "meh, it happens all the time here," "people are fed up with crime and theft." But where are the police in all of this, I probed. "They will come later to collect the body" was the apathetic response. Trying to make sense of this all, I ran this story by a few wazungus at a dinner party one night, one person quickly shamed my sense of surprise about the whole incident, "In my few years here," he said, "I have seen at least 10 village lynchings, one time over stealing a chicken from someone's yard."
Andrei and I both experienced very visceral reactions to this incident, but in markedly different ways. Andrei was stunned by the fleeting nature of life and how arbitrary the rules of life and death seem to be. I was stunned by the rules of mob justice, or rather, the lack thereof. I still cannot wrap my mind around being so passionately caught up in something to actually be delivering deadly blows to another person, especially with respect to something as minor as the theft of a cell phone. At what point does the human consciousness get overtaken by the rules of mob justice? How can a sense of right and wrong, the difference between life and death, be so easily eclisped?
Interestingly, in the Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller pondered some of these very same questions,
"There's something more involved--not just manhood perhaps, but will. It's like a man in the trenches again: he doesn't know any more why he should go on living, because if he escapes now he'll only be caught later, but he goes on just the same, and even though he has the soul of a cockroach and has admitted as much to himself, give him a gun or a knife or even just his bare nails, and he'll go on slaughtering and slaughtering, he'd slaughter a million men rather than stop and ask himself why."
A recent headline in the BBC world news page caught my attention, "Barbaric killing of murder suspect by Lebanese mob." The story went on to describe an investigation by Lebanese officials into a lynching by angry villagers of an Egyptian man accused of killing a local couple and their two grandsons. The "facts" of this case as reported by BBC were indeed gruesome. Following his alleged confession, the Egyptian man, eventually to be murdered by this mob of angry villagers, was apparently leading police officers through the events preceding his crime when dozens of villagers dragged him away from police custody and began beating him with sticks and knives. The police managed to rescue him and usher him to safety at a nearby hospital, thwarting this mob reaction, only for the crowd to later break in to the hospital's intensive care unit, drag him out and continue to beat him. After the crowd killed him, they stripped him down to his underpants, drove his body through the village streets on the hood of a car, and then hung his lifeless body from a pole in the village center while onlookers chanted "God is Great!" Following his gruesome and public death, the army was finally able to intervene and take his body away.
The words sprinkled throughout this BBC article were telling of some reactionary differences between here and there. "Officials condemned the action by villagers as 'barbaric'," "vigilante action was 'extremely dangerous',""nothing can justify this type of reaction,""horrible crime," and "No state of law can condone what happened."
I do not include this story to make light of the situation in Lebanon, nor to compare the gravity of the alleged killing of four people, including two children, to the theft of the cell phone, but the reactions to each case bring up some compelling questions. Why in one circumstance does the lynching case warrant investigation, where in the other not? What is the value of life, and death for that matter? And why does a death by a lynch mob in one part of the world merit a grabbing headline in a world renown media outlet while in the other blithe and tired indifference?
Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer