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Sad reflections on the week’s violence

This week we were treated to one of those depressing spectacles that make many of us wonder about the kind of society we have become.

Two NGO leaders were shot dead in the city in open view, by assailants unknown. University students then clashed with police, trying to prevent the dead bodies from being removed from the scene due to suspected foul play. In the ensuing melee, a student was also shot dead.

The students, quite rightly, wanted to organise a demonstration to protest against these events, particularly as the two NGO leaders had been mentioned adversely by the government before they were killed. The Prime Minister concurred, saying a demonstration was the students’ democratic right, that it would be licensed, and that police would provide adequate security to all during the event.

If only. Those of us who have lived through these events in the past knew better, and stayed home that day. The student procession was large, and started well enough with the participants marching to various government offices to make their complaint, and with police showing unusual restraint. But then it all went wrong. Trucks were commandeered to block the highway, and soon the almost inevitable looting and destruction started.

As we all saw on our television screens, young males stoned and molested motorists, broke into shops and restaurants, destroyed whatever took their fancy, took other people’s property with impunity – and impunity was the very thing they were supposed to be protesting against. The city ground to a halt, with total gridlock everywhere.

The university students tell us that they were not part of the looting, that their demonstration was infiltrated by militias and planted groups. But does it really matter who enacted the chaos? The fact is this: we are unable to hold any kind of mass gathering these days, without young males of whatever origin turning it into an orgy of plunder and destruction.

I don’t know who threw the stones and who stole the food, although their faces are captured on camera. What worries me most is the glee and excitement that was so obviously etched on so many faces as mayhem ensued. Whether they were tormenting motorists or breaking glass shopfronts, it was apparent that the antagonists were having a damn good time. The seriousness of the original crime being protested was forgotten; other crimes would now be committed with equal disdain.

What is equally disgusting is the willingness of so many to take out their anger on innocent bystanders. Those who were just driving around in the city, those who were manning their places of business, those who were earning their daily bread – what do they have to do with extra-judicial killings? Why do we make targets of those who do not create the problem, who do not benefit from crimes of impunity, who in fact just try to get on with their lives?

All those people are not the problem. Yet they are made the victims, every time.

We saw this last year. Many of the hundreds killed during the post-election conflagration were mere innocents. They did not steal elections or organise militias; they were simply people in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a society as deranged as ours, it is the decent, the quiet, the law-abiding that bear the brunt of the antics of desperadoes.

And so, the first officially licensed demonstration for months ended in chaos. What was achieved? The government now has every excuse not to license another one, in the name of protecting citizens and their property. And the citizens will probably agree. An opportunity to record a much-needed protest against state impunity is lost. Democracy is weaker, as is our already tattered social fabric.

Some basic things are apparent. First, that the idea of leadership in this country has simply evaporated. Hurling accusations, generating smokescreens, passing the blame, and inventing scapegoats is not leadership. But it is what passes for leadership these days on all sides and at all levels. What happened to leaders who set an example of moral probity, who take responsibility for events under their watch, who feel the needs of their followers in their very bones? Wherever we look – in government, in civil society, in communities, in student bodies – real leaders cannot be found. Just shouters and schemers.

The second forgotten principle of a decent and just society is that it should value ideas and persuasion over weapons and coercion. Evolved societies embrace different ideas, and they welcome reasoned debate. Primitive societies settle things using weaponry, stones, belligerence and force. In which direction are we evolving these days?

As the dust settles from the week’s dramas, we seem very ready to forget the very real problem of cycles of violence, of an eye for an eye, of a willingness to forget that we have laws for a reason. Laws are being broken with impunity by the state, and they are being broken with impunity by the citizenry. No good can come of this.

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