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Blind justice

June 13, 2012

THERE is a reason why the figure of Justice is depicted as she is, holding a set of scales, a sword, and her eyes covered by a blindfold.

The scales suspended from her right hand represent the relative strength of a case’s arguments, for and against. The double-edged sword symbolises the power of Reason and Justice. The blindfold is to spare her eyes from witnessing the trauma of what happens in her name in our Pakistani courtrooms.

No one in our country — whatever their political affiliation — can feel proud of the present situation. The chief justice of our Supreme Court is being pilloried for the second time in his judicial career. The last time he stood his ground by refusing to resign. He became a cause célèbre and the sound-bite darling of the media. Today, he is being hounded by that very same wolf-pack of yesterday’s admirers.

Jurisprudence has evolved over the millennia to protect the rights of man from the wrongdoing of fellow man. It does not, however, offer equivalent protection to those who have been appointed to adjudicate. Their courtroom is the well of public opinion, their jury the press.

In 1991, for example, President George Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to replace Justice Thurgood Marshall as the second African American justice on the Supreme Court. The opposition to Thomas was unexpectedly vitriolic and unprecedented. He complained to the Senate Judiciary Committee that was conducting the hearings into his suitability: “This is a case in which this sleaze, this dirt, was searched for by staffers of members of this committee. It was then leaked to the media. And this committee and this body validated it and displayed it in prime time over our entire nation.”

Thomas had grown up in the age of the Ku Klux Klan. He knew the connotation of the word ‘lynching’ when he applied it to the proceedings of the Senate committee and the savagery of the press. “This is a circus,” he told his tormentors. “It’s a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the US Senate rather than hung from a tree.”

Not surprisingly, Clarence Thomas reached a point during the hearings where he questioned whether any post — even a seat on the exalted bench of the Supreme Court of the United States — was worth such a humiliation.

One wonders whether our chief justice has had similar moments of doubt, of despair, of defeatism. It cannot be easy for him to act as the conscience of a society that has allowed itself to be lobotomised, its nerves severed, its capacity to feel pain so diminished that it can play with fire without smelling its own burning flesh.

It is clear that we Pakistanis have reached a depth of insensitivity where pain like the Marquis de Sade’s experiments knows no limits. We refuse to improve, to stand above ourselves, preferring instead to pull down those who presume to rise above us. Those who could stand outside the rest of us have demonstrated that detachment by migrating. Those who have remained in the country do so either out of necessity or out of a belief in an afterlife here on earth. There is no evidence to support that faith.

The recent budget should be proof enough of the gulf between the government’s self-perception of its performance and the reality of its incompetence. Our railway system is at a standstill. If its runs at all, it runs at a loss. Our national airline has more planes grounded than it has in the air. Its middle-aged cabin staff mirrors the obsolescence of its fleet.

On fiscal policy, the governor of our State Bank can confide in the Wall Street Journal but not in parliament. Energy is what the common man expends in trying to obtain it from impotent distribution companies that are themselves hostage to Wapda, KESC, IPPs and RPPs. Motorists who opted for CNG in the hope that they would get cheaper fuel have to queue the night before in a bread line of vehicles. Energy now follows its own calendar of meatless days.

The human cost of deprivation and suffering is incalculable and therefore, like some fearsome contingent liability, appears on no one’s books. Commuters travelling on buses die instead of reaching their destinations, precious surgeons are mown down in cold blood, national icons made targets, and infants incinerated in their incubators without a tear from officialdom to extinguish the fire that ended their lives so prematurely.

There are millions of us who are not fortunate enough to have flats in Edgware Road or duplexes in Park Lane, or ancestral chateaux in France, or estates our wives bought us in Bani Galla. We do not have more foreign passports than we have spouses. We do not have the unaccountable wealth needed to pose as representatives of the people.

What we do have is infinite patience, the endurance that has sustained us through years of depredation. We have the right to expect a government of our choice, and have the power of a vote that will allow us to decide in tranches of five years, again, and again, and if need be yet again, until one of us — the government or the electorate — gets it right.

Meanwhile, no one should remove the blindfold from the figure of Justice. She should be spared the unedifying spectacle of a chief justice of our country himself in the dock.

The writer is an author.