I decided to wait a few days to write this for very selfish reasons. I wanted to bask in the moment of feeling that maybe Belize has made one small step on the long journey toward social redemption. I wanted to enjoy the feeling of pride that my country is finally fighting back, standing strong, and demanding justice. I wanted to relish this moment that for once the good guys are winning and a bad guy is going down.
Wednesday, June 20th 2012, is one of those days that we will always remember exactly where we were when we heard that Bert Vasquez had been charged for the murder of Jasmine Lowe. Probably no group of people will have stronger memories of that day than the thousand or so people who gathered at the foot of the police station in San Ignacio to voice their demand that justice be served. It was a remarkable day.
Problem is, few were actually demanding justice. What that crowd, as well as many Belizeans throughout the country were – and are – calling for is vengeance.
Vengeance, not justice.
When you live in a society where more than 90% of all violent crimes go unpunished, it’s no wonder people get frustrated to the point that they want to take over the roles of judge, jury, and executioner. The system is broken and people are tired of sitting back while no one seems interested in fixing it. But if you are one of those people who would have been satisfied to see Bert Vasquez simply executed on the spot, without trial – or worse killed at the hands of vigilantes – ask yourself is THAT really the type of society you are so passionate about fighting for? Is your idea of a functioning democracy one where emotional mobs arbitrarily determine the guilt, innocence, and punishment of people?
I am not suggesting Bert Vasquez is innocent. From what I know of this man, he has clearly demonstrated that he is a menace to society. Sending him to prison will be a good thing for Belize. But did he kill Jasmine? We will likely never really know for certain. The police have decided to charge him and the public is eager to believe he is the murderer. Case closed, as far as the court of public opinion is concerned.
If he walks, it will be because the police bungled the investigation or his family afforded him a crafty attorney. If he gets convicted it will be because society demanded he be found guilty at any cost. Let’s face it, we WANT him convicted because we will all sleep a bit better believing that at least one monster is finally off the streets.
Or will we?
Once the emotion subsides will we question how we came to the conclusion that Vasquez is responsible for a murder? No witnesses. No DNA. No cause of death. Just a ring. A ring that the police seemed to be very eager to let the media know about. A ring that the mother of Jasmine Lowe seemed very deliberate – yet somehow awkward – about describing to reporters. Am I the only one who felt like she might be reading someone else’s script?
Again, I am not suggesting this guy is innocent. But I am not comfortable with how quickly we all were to assume his guilt and demand vengeance for his crime.
Vengeance, not justice.
For good reason the Belizean public is usually very skeptical of the police. That is, apparently, until they tell us what we are desperate to hear. In the days before Vasquez was apprehended, the police were considered inept. We fully expected yet another unsolved mystery. But suddenly no one dares question the police or their investigative abilities. They got him! Woo-hoo! Now let’s kill him!
One of the moments from June 20th that will stay with me forever is seeing a former “person of interest” in the Jasmine Lowe investigation address the crowd. This taxi driver had previously been detained for questioning. During the time he was in custody the rumour mill was running at full speed. People claimed he was found with a stone from Jasmine’s ring in his taxi. Apparently he had scratches on his face, assumingly from when Jasmine tried to fight this man for her life. He drove a white taxi, similar to the one seen in the grainy security video that seemed to be the only lead police had.
When he was released there was outrage. Some people believed the cops had let Jasmine’s killer walk out of the police station. The cops were criticized while the taxi driver was shunned. His business suffered as people believed him to be a murderer. But just a few days later, there he was addressing the throng of people gathered outside the police station, demanding vigilante justice for this angry mob that just a few days earlier would have eagerly ripped him apart limb by limb!
I hope Bert Vasquez is responsible for the death of Jasmine Lowe. Truth be told, I want him to be guilty. As a nation we need him to be Jasmine’s killer. But I hope he either confesses or is convicted based on irrefutable evidence at trial so there can be no doubt about who took the life of that poor little girl. I, just as much as any Belizean, want to feel the satisfaction that will come when we finally see a predator pay for his crime. But most of all I want to see a civilized society at work.
I want justice, not vengeance.
We all deserve a moment to vent. It can be healthy as long as we don’t get carried away. But for the long-term health of our nation, let’s harness this momentum and energy and put it towards building a society that is truly fair, just, and civilized. Deep down, I think that’s what we all really want for Belize.
After all, there is enough blood in our streets. Do we really need any more blood on our hands?