Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Local reaction

A foreign backpacker* was murdered in Auckland earlier this month, and that set off an extensive public reaction across New Zealand. While it’s good the victim is being remembered, there are aspects of this that aren’t good. The questions about all this outpouring are, first, why this case, why now? And, more importantly, what can we do to fix things?

It’s good to mourn the loss of someone to murder, and not the perpetrator. And, sadly, this backpacker is not the first, and probably won’t be the last, to meet their death here, though by far the most common reason is accident. But the large public reaction is unusual, and it seems somewhat out of proportion, especially because this backpacker’s not the first to be murdered.

The alleged killer was given name suppression in court, which means it’s a prosecutable offence to reveal the alleged killer’s name in any way, including on social media. Unfortunately, some New Zealanders openly defied the law, or came close to it, in their anger over the crime. Name suppression exists to ensure the accused gets a fair trial, and also to protect the victim in some cases (usually cases dealing with sexual assault or abuse). Part of the idea behind it is that it’s impossible to “un-do” publicity about the fact that someone has been accused of a terrible crime, which means that if they’re not convicted, their life will be destroyed. This is especially true since the Internet is forever, and anyone Googling an acquitted person’s name after the fact would find out about the charges—but not necessarily about the acquittal (probably wouldn’t, even).

The right to a fair and impartial trial is fundamental to any concept of justice, and yet, because people are so worked up about this case, as they have been about others in the past, some are willing to risk breaking the law. The bigger issue here isn’t that they could be prosecuted for their Tweet or Facebook post, but that they could derail the trial completely—cause a mistrial—and that will only prolong the ordeal for the family of the victim and delay justice even longer. So, breaching a suppression order is always a stupid thing to do.

There’s room for a robust debate on whether there should name suppression at all, but that debate cannot be advanced by deliberately breaking the law, unless one is willing to pay the consequences of doing so in order to make some point. Most of us aren’t—or wouldn’t be if we calmly reflected on the matter.

It seems to me that the sometimes reckless disregard for the consequences of violating a name suppression order is merely the result of people’s outrage over this case, which is the same reason it’s happened before. People are also embarrassed that this has happened in New Zealand, when our international guests, whatever their age, gender, nationality, mode of touring, etc., OUGHT to be safe. Sometimes, no matter how good the vast majority of us are, one bad—or evil—person can stain us all.

But there have been other tourists murdered, and plenty of New Zealanders are murdered every year, too. So, why this case? Why has this one hit a nerve that those others haven’t? I don’t think we can fully understand that yet, but there are pointers.

It’s true that the news media has been fuelling people’s passions by giving the case extensive coverage, but they do that all the time, so that’s not a logical reason. Something else must be actually fanning the flames.

It could be that social media is stoking the fire by giving people an outlet to express their raw emotions—grief, shame, rage—without any brakes or space for reasoned thought. Social media—Facebook in particular—profit when we are in a heightened emotional state and reacting broadly, unthinkingly, and confrontationally, and probably out of proportion to an incident. That’s what social media encourages us to do.

We should remember murder victims like this one, we should feel sympathy for their families and friends, and we should also redouble our own personal efforts to make our foreign guests feel welcome and safe. All of them.

What we mustn’t do is allow our raw emotions to drive us to lash out in irrational and counterproductive ways, nor to allow one case to blind us to all the similar and, sadly, even worse cases that don’t make the news or social media posts.

In short, we need to be better humans. We cannot by ourselves prevent this from ever happening again, no matter how good and noble our intentions. But if we all work to become better humans, maybe—maybe—bad things like this will become so rare that a strong reaction will not only make sense, it’ll be required.

The way we’ve been acting as humans allows things like this to happen. By being better humans we can help to fix that.

*I’ve chosen not to name the backpacker, or to use identifying descriptors of the victim, even though the linked stories all do, because my questions and unease actually have absolutely nothing to do with this particular case. It’s also one of the few ways I can limit how much I add to the frenzy surrounding this tragedy when, again, this particular case isn’t the point.


Arthur Schenck said...

I'm not surprised, especially with the large public vigils last night. I was heartened that they made the vigils about the victim and also the 14 women who were murdered by their partner/spouse this year. Remembering one victim, though doing so is noble, won't change anything. Remembering all victims as part of a larger call to societal change, however, may eventually help.

rogerogreen said...

This story actually made the 24-hour US news