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Home > News > Columnists > Rajeev Srinivasan

The consequences of inaction

May 23, 2007

Consider the following moral dilemma: If you knew that a friend was planning to commit random mass murder, what would you do? Would you turn him in to the police, or would you let him murder, in cold blood? Most people would in fact alert the authorities, because the massacre of innocents violates our sense of ethics.

Now make it a little more challenging. What if you knew that the police would shoot your friend without the benefit of the doubt, and if you were only 75 per cent sure about his plans? For instance, if you had an inkling about the terrorist attacks on the Israeli Olympic team in Munich in 1972, would you have notified the police? Or in the case of Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech?

The usual reaction from those thus questioned, ethicists say, is to take a utilitarian approach: The greater good of the greatest number of people. Thus, they generally support the incarceration (and even liquidation) of would-be murderers even if the evidence is not compelling; for, the alternative is so much worse. An extreme example of this was in the film Minority Report where 'pre-crime' fighters use clairvoyants to identify future murderers and stop them.

In other words, people compare the human rights of the potential victim to the rights of the potential murderer. Thus it should be axiomatic: The rights of the insurgent and the terrorist are not greater than those of their victims. Even though we liberals are concerned about the rights of the terrorist, surely those committing war crimes against defenseless civilians do not deserve tenderness.

Indeed, the consequences of inaction are horrific. Imagine if someone were to be able to stop the assassins of Mahatma Gandhi, or John Kennedy, or Ahmed Shah Massoud -- all leaders with much to give to their nations. In fact, not acting on prior information about potential incidents of this nature is a grave dereliction of duty, whether by a civilian or by a policeman. If a policeman, duty-bound to the State, does not take preventive action, he should be prosecuted for laxity.

News reports in the last few days show pre-emptive action is not anathema to liberal democracies. From the US comes a report of preventive detention of six Albanian immigrants who wanted to attack a military installation and 'kill as many soldiers as possible.'

From Britain comes the opposite question: Why weren't Pakistani-British terror suspects apprehended before their co-conspirators did real damage killing 56 people in a series of subway bombings in July 2005?

The lives of 329 passengers abroad the doomed Air India flight 182 could have been saved in 1985 if only the police had pursued leads with zeal, it now appears from belated testimony. It appears the authorities did not heed warnings, possibly out of complacency.

Similarly, if you knew about plans for the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York or the 12/13 attack on the Indian Parliament, wouldn't it be your absolute duty to try and avert these tragedies? To take it further, what price should society be willing to pay the maximum benefit to all? What rights should one be willing to give up in order that all may be better off?

These are wretched questions. Civilised people have certain obligations to society; and they can expect certain protections in return. This, however, only applies to the normal individual who has the implicit covenant with society. Those who are outlaws, insurgents, outside the pale, cannot claim the rights if they do not respect the obligations. A nihilist who doesn't respect others' fundamental rights deserves none himself.

This is the crux of the matter with the current issue rocking the media in India: The 'encounter death' of one Sohrabuddin Sheikh. According to the evidence at hand, he was no innocent.

As much as one would like to uphold his civil liberties, one has to put oneself in the shoes of one of his potential victims -- those 'little people', often lower-middle-class, whose names never even appear in the newspapers. How do you weigh their lives against the life of such a person? What is the value of the life of a common citizen of India? Isn't it at least as high as that of a known criminal with 50 pending criminal cases?

It is certainly high-handed of the police to stage 'encounter killings', and it is true that some innocents are victimised. The notorious Rajan Case in Kerala, where an engineering student 'disappeared' during the Emergency, comes to mind; so does the fruitless 30-year search by his father Professor Eachara Warrier for justice for his only son. Every instinct cries out against such miscarriages of justice.

However, it is also true that the police in India are forced to pursue rough-and-ready lynchings because motivated ideologues pervert the system to let certain criminals and mass-murderers go scot-free. This is a factor in their decision-making. Consider the case of Indian Airlines 814, when victims of the hijacked forced a trial-by-media, leading to the freeing of arch-terrorists. Surely, it would have been better to have shot those terrorists on sight rather than keeping them in jail, available as ransom.

There was tremendous outrage at the Kandahar cave-in. The public doesn't want a repeat of that sort of meek surrender, and therefore there is sympathy towards the plight of the policemen, who are under tremendous pressure: Damned if they do, damned if they don't.

'Encounter killings' are a product of a warped society wherein the media and the political class practice double standards. If law enforcement officials prove unable to maintain law and order in this system, there is an infinitely worse alternative: vigilante justice, lynch-mobs taking the law into their own hands. This would mean civil society has failed.

There was a series of Charles Bronson movies in the 1980s, Death Wish I, II, etc which highlighted this scenario. It is not pretty. Better to have the police, who have some sense of discipline, handle outlaws than have the public do it for them. It is necessary and appropriate for law enforcement to take preventive action to protect society at large; rather an occasional mistake than the death, due to inaction, of many blameless citizens.

Comments welcome at my blog at

Rajeev Srinivasan