We need trust in the law, not cowboys

We need trust in the law, not cowboys

In cowboy movies, there are two sets of justice. Legal justice -- slow, frustrating, futile, executed by the sheriff or the hangman -- and frontier justice, which is as swift as the trigger and as thirst-quenching as a mug of moonshine. It can be executed by anyone with bullets to spare.

At times, living in Thailand can feel like living in a cowboy movie. The justice system is creaking, the cogs rusty under the weight of the bureaucracy, and people wonder if they can still trust the swaggering sheriffs, all of them half-drunk.

Take the chilling case of a teacher who was likely wrongfully convicted for a hit-and-run case, for instance, not to mention numerous other incidents that we experience almost every day, on the roads when there are dubious checkpoints, or on the news when one man is indicted for sharing an article that 2,800 others also shared. Or when the sheriff drags his feet for so long that a rich boy who allegedly hit and killed a policeman before bolting still walks around in his fancy pants, unpunished. If that's not justice delayed and denied, then what is?

So, when legal justice is moot, give me frontier justice. Let's play the judge, the sheriff, Batman and the hangman, all rolled into one.

What facilitates all of this, besides a dysfunctional system and militarised mentality, is the thirst-quenching quality of social media and the abundant availability of recorded images: in short, video clips, the real hammer of justice in our post-truth world.

Bring me the head of that guy. Which guy? The dead guy in a case that induced a state of national hysteria, in which a 50-year-old man shot dead a 17-year-old teenager in a road dispute that turned into a Shakespearean tragedy filmed by not one but two dashboard cameras, front and back, yielding a 12-minute clip and hundreds of hours of televised punditry and Facebook judgements. It's the viral video of the week, meaning it's a virus that makes people sick with rage. It spreads like a thrilling disease, a pleasurable fever, with the excitement of a reality show featuring, among other things, a real loaded gun and a real, irredeemable death.

From what happens, it's clear the majority prefers frontier justice.

After a parking spat, Nawapol Peungpai and his friends allegedly mobbed the car of Suthep Pochanasomboon, who was travelling with his family. Mr Suthep pulled out a gun and shot the boy dead. The incident was recorded by CCTV cameras as well as by two dashboard cameras in Mr Suthep's car (go out and buy one!), and the unfolding of those few minutes has occupied the conversation and airwaves in the past week, with the collective sympathy leaning towards the killer, not the killed.

Students of cinema know we can't always trust what we see on screen: image is not reality. But who cares. It looks like Mr Suthep was defending himself from a gang of angry youths who poured out from a van and attacked his car. The shooter claims self-defence (now that inspires you to go out and buy a gun too). The mother of the dead boy cried foul, saying her son was a well-behaved person and that Mr Suthep grossly overreacted -- and when her interview went out the internet just thrashed her relentlessly for "excessive motherly love".

One of the most common comments is: "I, too, would have emptied the magazine had those kids ganged up on me like that." Would you? What would it make you if you said yes and if you said no? A cowboy? A conservative? A humanist? A vigilante? Or simply a man in the Wild West who has to do whatever it takes to protect your woman and child?

It's scary. The mob of furious teenagers, yes, they're scary. But what's also scary is our quick embrace of frontier justice; this isn't the first time though, in fact we have a Facebook court convening to deliver its verdict on everything every day (except the important things, like the legitimacy of the government).

What's scary is the fact that, implicitly, we've come to accept that Thailand is the Wild West, a country of broken laws, dysfunctional justice and unreliable law enforcers -- as examples abound -- that we need to shoot first, with the camera and then the gun.

It will be anarchic if we just take justice into our own hands, to scalp the enemies with the knife we sharpen in our kitchen. What's more worrying is that it's false justice, the kind of "justice" that brings satisfaction but not consequences. Not an improvement of the system, not a shake-up of the police, and not better control of our own future.

The only way to achieve a true, lasting justice is through society's trust in the law and its practitioners -- and that seems like a long shot these days.

Kong Rithdee is Life editor, Bangkok Post.

Kong Rithdee

Bangkok Post columnist

Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.

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