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The unraveling blindfold of justice

March 31, 2012

-Illustration by Mahjabeen Mankani/Dawn.com

Oftentimes when I draw correlations between the US and Pakistan, some readers find the comparison illogical considering the vast divide of resources and democratic history between the two countries. However, some stories over the past month in the US illuminate the fact that despite having functioning democratic institutions, racism and injustice still pervades in America’s society. The acquittal of a white terrorist group and the case of Trayvon Martin demonstrate how America continues to struggle with its racist past and present.

In 2010, the Justice Department indicted members of a white anti-government organisation called Hutaree, whose ideals and methods mirror many terrorist groups in Pakistan. The members claimed that they were warriors for God, who were sent to wage a war against the government, which was controlled by the “Anti-Christ”. They claimed all local and federal police officers were being controlled by the demon, and so they planned on killing officers. The Justice Department reported:

The indictment also alleges that the Hutaree planned to kill an unidentified member of local law enforcement and then attack the law enforcement officers who would gather in Michigan for the funeral….with improvised explosive devices with explosively formed projectiles.

This group possessed more weapons and bomb materials than any terrorist cell found in the nation to date. The members of the group were charged with sedition, as well as several other weapons crimes, but were acquitted of most charges by a federal district court judge. The judge ordered the immediate release of the individuals, stating that the prosecutors had not proven that they were a threat to society.

This seems to mirror Pakistan’s justice system, where terrorist groups are arrested by police only to be released by judges based on a lack of evidence or mistakes by the prosecutor. However, one should remember that, unlike Pakistan, the US government is not in the habit of acquitting terrorist suspects; as such, if the suspects were Islamic extremists rather than white, they would have been subject to a completely different justice system.

If Hutaree were an Islamic organisation with any ideological connection to al Queda, they would have been tried by a military tribunal as required by the National Defense Authorisation Act of 2011, rather than being tried by a civilian judge. The standards of proof and the presumption of innocence are far different between a civilian judge and a military tribunal. This is why a defendant is more likely to be released due to deficiencies in the prosecutor’s case by a civilian judge, rather than a military tribunal.

While it is important for all criminal suspects to be afforded the right to a civilian hearing, the inequality of justice in the US shines through with the Hutaree case. Both Islamic and white terrorists pose the same threat to average citizens and have the same twisted ideologies to back up their murderous plans, yet, they are treated differently by the justice system according to race.

The other major story of racial inequality in the US is about the recent murder of 17 year old Trayvon Martin, who was killed by a member of his gated community because he looked “suspicious.” The facts are not clear, but it seems that the young black man was guilty of wearing a sweatshirt and running to his parents’ home when he was shot dead by George Zimmerman. The murder of a young African American teen is unfortunately not a new occurrence in America, nor is racial profiling, but the lack of punishment for Trayvon’s murder sparked outrage amongst minority communities. This inspired students from my alma mater, Howard University, to start an online campaign entitled “Am I Suspicious?” asking for justice in Trayvon’s case.

There are several laws that protect minorities from hate crimes and levy heavier punishments for murders that were racially/ethnically motivated. However, many have pointed to the racial inequality of the justice system, where the murder of a black teen can go unpunished, but the same would not happen if the victim had been white. Others claim that the police were justified in failing to prosecute Zimmerman, as he was supposedly acting in self defense when he murdered the teen.

Until there are eyewitnesses who can accurately describe what occurred, we might never know what happened that night. But, what we do know is that in a nation as rich and dedicated to ‘global justice’ as America, a black child was killed and his killer roams free. New Orleans rapper, Souljah Slim, best explains this situation with the following rhyme,

“Black man kill a black man, it's cool they lovin dat / Black man kill a white man & the sentencin' him to death / White man kill a black man then scream about self defense / Break it down to manslaughter wit all of the evidence.”

One of the organisers of the online protest movement to prosecute Trayvon’s killer is a fellow graduate from Howard University, Kevin Cunningham. Mr. Cunningham explains that the US is still experiencing blowback from the era of slavery and the Civil War. He explains that the US is now experiencing a Racial Cold War where “the culture of criminalisation of black people and black youths in particular can be connected back in time to these efforts to undermine the ultimate settlement of the 'Civil War.’”

He states that this historical anti-black rhetoric is now being used against Muslim Americans, subjecting them to abuse without practical protection from the government. This underlying anti-Islamic sentiment amongst Americans often manifests in ugly ways, such as the case of Shaima Alawadi, who was mercilessly beaten to death last week in California because she was an Iraqi-American wearing a hijab. The young mother was killed, and an anti Islamic note was left next to her corpse.

While the justice system seems marred by latent racism in the society, America’s civil society can prove to be acutely aware of these problems and is often willing to take action to call for change. Civil organisers like Mr. Cunningham are certainly not common, but provide an example of young leaders willing to organise a public call for change in the justice system. As such, Aslan Media has started an online campaign called Hoodies and Hijabs, which raises awareness about violence against minorities in the US.

The system of justice in the US is far from perfect, and sometimes the world is able to view the latent racism that affects the execution of the law. It is especially important for young democracies with heterogamous populations, like Pakistan, to note these instances as proof that the problems of racism will not be solved even after 250 years of democracy. Rather, the process of achieving social equality is a never-ending one that requires the constant vigilance of both the society and the legal system.

The writer holds a Juris Doctorate in the US and is a researcher on comparative law and international law issues.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.