March 22, 2005

A tolerable load, really

Done with Laura Wexler's Fire in a Canebrake. As I mentioned earlier, this is about a lynching in Georgia in July 1946. After the crime, the FBI began an investigation that had to immediately confront both white silence and black fear (and therefore black silence as well). It also had to work within the curious legal constraint that applied to lynching. With the administration of law essentially a state matter, there was always a problem. Because often with lynching, the local law and order mechanism would do little to punish lynchers, with whom they usually had sympathies anyway.

But federal investigations into lynchings could only concentrate on trying to prove that the lynchers had violated their victims' civil rights. And often with lynching, this was the only hope of bringing the killers to justice; as Wexler points out, to this day the US does not have a federal law against lynching.

Predictably, the investigation into this Georgia lynching went nowhere.

In December of 1946, a grand jury was convened to decide formally whether to charge the suspects and try them. On December 19, the foreman of the grand jury read out this statement:

    We the grand jury have carefully and patiently during the past three weeks investigated the killing of four Negroes in Walton County, GA, which occurred on July 25, 1946. Numerous witnesses ... have been questioned exhaustively. The members of this body are unanimous in reporting that we have been unable to establish the identity of any person or persons participating in the murders or in any violation of the civil rights statutes of the United States.

As Wexler writes: "The federal government had responded to the worst incident of racial violence since the end of World War II with the most massive lynching investigation in the country's history. And yet, there was still no justice."

Faced with this, Wexler also writes, some people found "consolation" in the words of the editor of the Atlanta Constitution (now the Atlanta Journal-Constitution), Ralph McGill. Only days after the murders, he wrote:

    Even though [the lynchers] never come to justice, they will have to live with themselves. They will wonder to themselves how it was that they, who some mother nursed and cared for to rear them to manhood, dreaming dreams for them, managed to come to do murder. They will begin to realize that they have taken human life and are cursed of God. They must live with that uncomfortable fact. It will become an intolerable load which will, in some fashion, break them all.

I don't know about you, but this kind of sentiment leaves me feeling distinctly dissatisfied, if not uneasy. We've had innumerable horrible crimes in India -- the Delhi massacre of 1984, the Bombay one of 1992-93, the Gujarat one of 2002, the Bhagalpur blindings, assorted ghastly caste slaughters in Bihar, add your own. Pretty much never have we been able to punish the guilty for these atrocities.

Faced with this failure of justice, many people make the argument that the perpetrators "will have to answer to god", or "must look at themselves every day in the mirror", or "will have to live with themselves from now on."

All of which might be true, I don't know. What I do know is, nobody seems to be in any particular suffering because of the daily view in the mirror. What I do know is, they must know they have committed great crime and got away with it. What I do know is, other would-be criminals must look at this and know that they, too, can commit crime and get away with it. Which is what goes on around us.

All because we think living with the truth of crime committed is punishment enough. It isn't.


Anonymous said...

You mention 1984 riots, the Gujarat riots, but may I ask where's Godhra Hindu killings?
Whats your bench mark for listing a tragedy ?.. is it 1) the number of people killed or 2)the way the people are killed?
I think its number one for you, 'cos number two would've qualified this tragedy into ur blogs.
National pride and standing up to Visa denial issue is another point where you have treaded a path , which it seems as Ousiders point of view, its not with as Indian pointof View.
One website for the reality check on your info and knowldege : < >

Dilip D'Souza said...

may I ask where's Godhra Hindu killings?

I am vey intrigued by the guys who ask such questions; specifically, about their geographical knowledge. I mention "Gujarat 2002"; last time I checked, Godhra was part of Gujarat as it was in 2002 too. To me, a horrific number of ordinary human beings died horribly in Gujarat in 2002: some in Godhra, some in Ahmedabad, some in Dehlol, some in ... take your pick. Some were Hindu, some were Muslim. I dont really care, because each death there diminishes me.

Yet there will be someone who will write, "what about Godhra and the Hindus."