Of justice and anger

18Dec08

“Norman Stanley Fletcher, you have pleaded guilty to the charges brought by this court, and it is now my duty to pass sentence…”

As far back as the age of eight or so, I recall shrinking at the opening credits of the television comedy series Porridge, as we hear the voice of a judge sentencing Ronnie Barker – aka Norman Stanley Fletcher – to imprisonment over the sound of metal prison doors clanging shut and keys being jangled in heavy locks.

Now, Fletcher  – or Fletch-aaah, as Mr McKay the chief warden used to call him – was an habitual – albeit fictional – criminal and his five-year sentence was no doubt justly deserved.

However, the memory of that sound of the prison door shutting men in, triggers in me a deeply held fear of being imprisoned or being punished for something I did not do. And, momentarily pushing this particular plate of Porridge aside, when I see people accused or condemned for crimes they did not commit, it makes my proverbial blood boil. Injustice provokes my ire like nothing else.

I remember the horror I felt as a child, watching the television series Roots and seeing the backs of innocent men rounded up as slaves scourged to bleeding pulp, or the main character Kunta Kinte having his foot hacked off for trying to escape his dismal captivity. And if you ever want to see me weep, just sit with me through the 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. At the end of the courtroom scene, I can never contain myself as the innocent Tom Robinson is found guilty of a rape that he clearly could not have committed.

The excellent new film Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie, which I saw on Monday, has all the right ingredients to raise my hackles. Worse still it is based on a true story. Set in Los Angeles in the late 1920s, single mother Christine Collins – played by Jolie – arrives home to find her nine year old son Walter is missing. Several months later, the police inform her that Walter has been found alive. The LAPD has been under fire for corruption and hopes this good news story will boost public opinion in its favour. The problem is that the boy clearly isn’t Christine’s missing son – he’s even several inches shorter. Yet, in full view of the press, the police pressurise Christine to take the boy home. As she begins to launch a campaign of complaint, a newspaper story implies she is an unfit mother. When Walter’s teacher and dentist give Christine signed letters confirming the child is an impostor, Christine is thrown into a psychopathic ward and threatened with electro-convulsive therapy. There she discovers numerous other women who have been committed, simply for challenging police authority.

Changeling is a slow-burner of a movie, directed by Clint Eastwood, who does this kind of thing very well. It is not a thriller as such and the plot revelations are handled in an underplayed, non-manipulative way, and are all the more shocking for that. What it does do is carry the viewer along with the mounting and intolerable anxiety – and appalling injustice – that Christine Collins was forced to endure at the hands of those in authority who were willing to forego any reasonable principle in order to save their own reputations.

Bahá’u’lláh in His Writings labels justice as “the best-beloved of all things” and reserves some of His strongest condemnation for those who commit injustice. In the Lawh-i-Ra’ís, He rebukes the Grand Vizir of Turkey, ‘Álí Páshá, who had been responsible for His exile to the prison city of ‘Akká.

“Even if this Lifegiver and World Reformer be in thine estimation guilty of sedition and strife, what crime could have been committed by a group of women, children, and suckling mothers that they should be thus afflicted with the scourge of thine anger and wrath? No faith or religion hath ever held children responsible…” questions Bahá’u’lláh. “Ye have plundered and unjustly despoiled a group of people who have never rebelled in your domains, nor disobeyed your government, but rather kept to themselves and engaged day and night in the remembrance of God…”

“By the righteousness of Him Who hath caused Bahá to speak forth before all that are in heaven and all that are on earth!” He continues, “A handful of clay is greater in the sight of God than all your dominion and your sovereignty, and all your might and your fortune. Should it be His wish, He would scatter you in dust.  Soon will He seize you in His wrathful anger, sedition will be stirred up in your midst, and your dominions will be disrupted. Then will ye wail and lament, and will find none to help or succour you.”

You can almost see the smoke rising from the page as the shrill, quill pen carved such vehemence into the paper. One of the few justifiable expressions of anger, it would seem, would be to channel it towards the establishment of justice.

“In creation there is no evil; all is good,” wrote ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. “Certain qualities and natures innate in some men and apparently blameworthy are not so in reality. For example, from the beginning of his life you can see in a nursing child the signs of desire, of anger, and of temper…If he exercises his anger and wrath against the bloodthirsty tyrants who are like ferocious beasts, it is very praiseworthy…”

Knowing this may not make me feel any less afraid of being locked up for some crime that I did not commit, but it does make it more acceptable to feel oneself stirred up in anger and into action against the manifold injustices that are committed in the world.

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3 Responses to “Of justice and anger”

  1. Excellent post, Rob. You have described one of my major fears here – like you, I have a deep rooted fear of being locked up or otherwise punished for something I did not do. (I always put it down to having spent many years at boarding school.)

    The propensity of tyrannical authority to punish those innocents who challenge its overweening power is both an ancient and a modern abuse, an abuse that can happen on large and small scales. The story of Sally Murrer, a local journalist in Milton Keynes, should make us angry. This is what Nick Cohen wrote in the Guardian on 30 November:

    “The accusations against Sally Murrer, on the other hand, were incomprehensibly trivial. The state said that Mark Kearney, a police officer and Murrer’s co-defendant, had given her the story that Thames Valley Police did not intend to prosecute the star striker of the MK Dons after a fight in a hotel. It also alleged he had passed on a tip that a man who had been murdered in the town had a conviction for drug dealing.

    “Journalists in free countries receive similar steers every day. Yet the police bugged her phones, ransacked her home and office, confiscated her computers, interrogated her, humiliated her with a strip search, separated her from her daughters and handicapped son and left her with the threat of a prison sentence hanging over her for 18 months.

    “She has a conspiracy theory for the mayhem they brought to her quiet life that also touches on the rights of Parliament. She is convinced that the police and CPS were trying to intimidate Kearney into silence because he had protested about his superiors ordering him to bug conversations between Sadiq Khan, the Labour MP and lawyer, and a jailed terrorist suspect.

    “I find the alternative as grim. It may be that Labour ministers, police and prosecutors regard the release of any unauthorised information, however inconsequential, as a crime and are determined to persecute sources and the politicians and journalists they speak to. The state wants potential trouble-makers to ask themselves once, twice, 100 times if taking on the government is worth the trouble.”

    Not as bad as what happened to the character portrayed in “Changeling”, but bad enough.

    So we shouldn’t be surprised at what’s happening to the Baha’is in Iran, who are being imprisoned, excluded from university, expelled from school, having their houses torched and their businesses closed for no good reason. A tyrannical authority which does not contemplate any alternative, especially one that comes from the same Baha’u’llah, who so excoriated the 19th century tyrants of Iran and Turkey.

  2. 2 Jasmin Ettehadieh

    Dear Rob,
    thank you very much for posting this article. I feel the same way as you do. Seeing injustice happening in such cruel ways also makes me want to try harder to contribute in building a more just world. Lots of love, Jasmin

  3. 3 Martin

    Good post Rob

    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to respond to this. I feel that while there’s certainly a great deal of injustice committed by various authorities all over the world, at the same time they are here for our protection and I/we ought to be thankful that they exist. No doubt, they make mistakes. If I were to look at our judicial system and all the people who work in it to uphold justice with a single human being, I could argue that we might be only noticing the bad qualities and are overlooking the good, as that seems to be our tendency, is it not?

    In my opinion, this is a very complex and many-faceted issue and sometimes it’s very tough to point fingers. How do people become wrongly convicted of something? In most cases there must be someone to raise the issue to the authorities and press charges in the first place. Isn’t that where the actual injustice takes place??? In my mind, it’s much less the fault of authorities who wrongly sentence someone, than it is the people who wrongly accuse someone and do everything in their power to get that person convicted. Unfortunately, those people live among us, Rob. Today they’re your friend, tomorrow your worst enemy, and it’s them who will see to it that you’ll get wrongly convicted.

    Nobody’s perfect. These things happen, and as long as there’s people wrongly accusing others of something, there’s always a chance of being wrongly convicted. Yesterday it was Sally Murrer, tomorrow it could be you!


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