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Vengeance is not justice

January 25, 2018

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NOW that an arrest has been made in the gruesome case of the horrific murder of little Zainab of Kasur, it is disturbing to see calls mounting for a ‘public hanging’. At the very outset, mobs protesting the crime in Kasur, and outside the DHQ hospital, demanded ‘public flogging and hanging’ of the murderer. Then a few journalists endorsed the idea publicly.

Senator Rehman Malik, a former interior minister, introduced an amendment to the law in the Senate Subcommittee on Interior that he heads, to make possible public executions in cases of violent crime against children. The amendment passed and moved to the house, where similar calls have been raised by other lawmakers. Most recently, Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif also made the same call during the news conference where he announced that an arrest had been made in the case on the basis of a DNA match.

Let’s get one thing straight. I fully understand the sentiments of those who are making such a demand, and have had to restrain my own visceral impulses when following this case. But it is important to point out how deeply flawed and misguided such sentiment is, especially when dealing with a serial killer, and, yes, the police have said that the killer in Zainab’s case is a serial killer whose DNA was found on six other victims, all young girls.

‘Hanging people publicly will not deter such crimes in the future.’

Serial killers are not deterred by violent punishment, nor are they apprehended through normal investigative means. And the worst way to deal with such criminals is to execute them extrajudicially like what probably happened to Javed Iqbal, a serial killer from more than a decade ago who claimed over 100 victims, mostly children.

The reason is that to be able to catch a serial killer, and they exist in every population, one needs special tools. The FBI has a special department only to hunt and track down serial killers, because the detective work required for their apprehension is different from normal policing.

To get a better idea of what is required in such cases, I reached out to Dr Ali Hashmi from the Department of Psychiatry at King Edward Medical University, Lahore. The police availed themselves of the services of this department during their investigation in the Zainab case, and Dr Hashmi has also publicly taken a strong stand against a public hanging.

“[T]hese incessant calls for revenge by baying for a public hanging are totally insane!” he tweeted recently. “Hanging people publicly will not deter such crimes in the future. It will only further brutalise an already brutalised society and may make such crimes more likely.” He followed up by underlining the importance of psychological profiling of such criminals and maintaining a database.

“There are similarities in criminal behaviour,” Dr Hashmi told me when I spoke with him on the phone. I asked him what a psychiatrist would look for when building such a profile. “You study the morphology of the crime, the time of day, location, how the victim was induced to follow the attacker and other such things, as well as the background of the criminal, such as early life, childhood, schooling, family relationships, sexual history and so on. After that we would get into the specifics, such as how the killer chose the victim and the location where to take them and so on” for the purposes of the crime.

“If you build a proper psychological profile, it will give you clues about where to guide your investigation; of course, it won’t lead you straight to the killer, but it will help. You can also build a picture of the kind of person who is more likely to commit such a crime in the future.”

There is another advantage of such profiles, after the killer has been identified and apprehended (which, let us admit, has not yet happened in the present case. We only have an accused at this point, and every accused is entitled to a fair trial and an opportunity to defend himself or herself, even those accused of child molestation and serial killers). The other advantage is that building a psychological profile begins during the investigation, long before the actual apprehension, because it yields clues about the future course of action, and provides opportunities to ensnare the criminal.

“A year ago we discovered in Sargodha that children were being abducted and murdered,” Dr Hashmi told me. “Clues from there can help. In this case [Kasur] they had no database, they were going door to door, speaking to thousands of people” in order to track down the killer. Such a high-intensity dragnet was possible in this case only because of its massive public profile, but it is not practical to do this in all cases involving serial killers or other criminals acting on deranged impulses.

The baying for blood must stop. Senator Rehman Malik should withdraw his amendment calling for the law to be changed to allow ‘public hangings’ of criminals whose victims are children, and Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif should not offer further promises of a public spectacle. Instead, the political leadership should ask law enforcement, and other professionals involved in the apprehension of such cases, what resources they require in order to streamline their efforts and sharpen their investigations. Dr Hashmi has advised the building of a database of psychological profiles of all such killers — and there are lots of them — much like a fingerprint or DNA database.

The general public can be excused for succumbing to reflex, and confusing vengeance with justice. But thought and opinion leaders, as well as the political leadership, must not pander to such sentiments. The calls for visible punishment help slake the bodily thirst for retribution, but will do nothing to protect the millions of other children in our society, as well as future generations, from those who stalk them with criminal intent.

The writer is a member of staff.

khurram.husain@gmail.com

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2018