Human, All Too Human

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post.]

A man paddles his canoe into Lolowei's harbour, sheltered by standing rocks on one side and this massive cliff on the other. A shocking story is emerging from the Northern Vanuatu island of Maewo. Last week, two brothers, fugitives from Kaiovo village, appeared at Lolowei Hospital on neighbouring Ambae island. One was treated for injuries. Witnesses said he claimed he had been stoned following a village meeting. The other walked onward to Tumsisiro, an Anglican mission, and requested sanctuary.

Before long, a caller from Maewo ascertained the brothers’ presence in Ambae, and a motor boat was dispatched. Reports estimate that up to a dozen men armed with axes and bush knives arrived at Lolowei. They proceeded to the outpatient clinic and promptly murdered the first brother. Stunned onlookers watched as they struck him dead, then dragged his corpse down to the shore, mocking and abusing it as they went. The second brother met the same fate soon afterward.

Within hours of the events, the story began to spread that accusations of sorcery and murder were the cause of this tragic episode. As with most such events, speculation is rampant and details are difficult to corroborate. One distraught Ambaean related a tale that seems to align well with others:

She told of a meeting held in Kaiovo to deal once and for all with the death of two local school employees, widely suspected to have been poisoned. At its climax, a local church elder announced that God had given him the names of the perpetrators. He had no sooner identified the two brothers and an elderly male accomplice than the local chief instructed the villagers to kill them.

Before the brothers could react, she said, one of the villagers picked up a large volcanic cooking stone and launched it at one of them. He missed, and the two began to scramble to their feet. Another stone quickly followed, striking one of the brothers and injuring him. They nonetheless managed to escape, leaving the older man to be beaten severely by the villagers.

Reports indicate that they obtained a canoe and paddled across several kilometers of open ocean to Lolowei’s tiny cove. It was there that their pursuers caught them up and murdered them.

Poison, witchcraft, religious visions and mob justice. One could easily dismiss these events as the actions of a backward, primitive people, benighted in superstition.

We should be careful not to mock too loudly, lest we mock ourselves.

The same week this story emerged, Internet pundits noted the rise of a pernicious and dangerous trend in online ‘crowd sourcing’ behaviour. People in China have taken to organising themselves to avenge various social transgressions. Using social networking tools, they identify and publicly shame people who, they claim, have committed various acts of cruelty and callousness.

In one case, a Chinese woman posted a video of herself as she tortured and killed a kitten with her stiletto heels. Indignant viewers tracked down personal details including her name, address and employer and began a harassment campaign that culminated in her flight into hiding.

Good riddance to bad rubbish, one is tempted to say. Surely someone so thoughtlessly cruel brought her fate upon herself. Some have observed that it’s hardly surprising to see such behaviour arising in China, with its inept local police and corrupt administration.

But such vigilantism is everywhere. In a case whose circumstances closely mirror that of the young Chinese woman, a teenage American boy uploaded a video of a dog being molested and was subjected to nearly identical treatment. The loosely-organised confederacy of online activists known as Anonymous has a track record of posting incriminating information about their targets.

They too claim the moral high ground, arguing, for example, that their disruption of the Church of Scientology, both online and In Real Life (their term), is a reaction to Scientology’s suppression of information about their organisation. Their tactics, claims Anonymous, include kidnapping, torture and even murder their own members.

People often complain that the Law is impersonal, an uncaring instrument whose application too often punishes the innocent and allows the guilty to walk free. In practice, it is capricious and too often selectively applied. All of this is true, from time to time.

But the alternative is summary judgment and mob justice. Far too often, they’re driven by hysteria and a deep-seated desire to find a scapegoat in order to externalise the worst aspects of human nature that exists within all of us. A recent Daily Post story on the Lolowei murders reports that villagers had long made use of the two accused poisoners to settle their own petty differences.

The very people who had commissioned these despicable acts were the brothers’ accusers and ultimately their executioners.

So where was the rule of Law? As with so many government services, policing is little more than a charade in rural areas. Newspaper reports indicate that, far from detaining the perpetrators and securing the bodies as evidence, police escorted the bodies to the attackers’ boat and allowed them to be taken away. The bodies were apparently fastened with stones and dumped into the ocean.

(It must be acknowledged that police dispatched criminal investigation staff to Ambae the very same day the reports first surfaced. As this column is being written, anonymous sources are reporting that 7 men will be summoned to face charges of unlawful assembly and murder. Whether these people are already in custody is not clear.)

Had these events happened even a few years ago, the brothers might have made good their escape. But with the advent of mobile telecommunications throughout Vanuatu, it only took a few phone calls to locate them, to coordinate transport and, yes, to propagate the sordid story across the nation.

Truly, technology can change lives, but it doesn’t change human nature.

A recent report from the Pacific Institute of Public Policy measuring the social effects of mobile telephony has solid evidence indicating that one of the primary benefits of mobile services is to reinforce social bonds and to sustain them over distance.

Such benefits are undeniably good, but development – especially social development – cannot consist only of technological advances. Improved access to information is a good thing, but it’s only as useful as our ability to process, filter and understand the information itself. No amount of technology will mitigate the worst excesses of jealousy, superstition and mob instinct.

One surprising datum emerging from the PiPP telecoms report is that people don’t recognise the role played by the Government in these recent changes. Satisfaction rose over last year’s report with regard to access to family and friends, business opportunities, travel, even education. But satisfaction levels with the government services actually dropped slightly this year, safeguarding their place at the very bottom of the index.

Social development is a complex, often amorphous and always difficult undertaking. But the government of Vanuatu has to state clearly, publicly and unambiguously what its role will be in this regard. If it doesn’t, people will continue to take matters in their own hands, sometimes with tragic results.