Monday, August 20, 2012

An odd village

by Daniel Mack, Instituto Sou da Paz
In order to respond to a history of violent deaths, a small village congregated its entire population of 193 people – including the known perpetrators, those who had sold them the weapons, and the families, friends and acquaintances of the victims.
The purpose of this congregation: to devise some sort of mechanism to prevent and hold responsible any villager who sold weapons to known criminals – or to those who had demonstrated clear malicious or irresponsible behavior with guns in the past. 

Given its odd political and judicial traditions, the village lacked any way of punishing the perpetrators themselves, and often lacked the gumption to even attempt to stop them from their ongoing acts. They surmised, however, that holding others effectively responsible would constrain their desire to sell guns to shady characters – somewhat of a tradition for a large number of its denizens. 

However, in another bizarre twist of this village’s legal traditions, in order to take any decision, all villagers had to agree on all details of any said mechanism. As a consequence, very few decisions had ever been made – and those that had were usually about issues lesser than “life and death” or were watered-down so much they had very little impact on the ground. 

Unsurprisingly, when deliberations began after a significant delay, gun dealers and perpetrators alike protested vehemently at the very notion that their patently irresponsible, and often criminal, behavior should be constrained in any manner. To filibuster – the villagers for some reason only had 19 days to reach an agreement – they often spoke about entirely unrelated issues, or asked questions they knew the answers to, often with a smirk in the side of their mouth. Allowed by tradition and the wise man conducting the deliberations, they spoke repeatedly, often several times more than any others in the room. 

Despite these obstacles, the families of those who had been killed continued to demand a minimum mechanism to prevent further irresponsible actions – early on they had given up hopes of justice, belittled as “ambitious” by some friends of the victims who, in a another theatrical twist, had also sold many weapons in their lifetimes. 

Though an overwhelming majority of the village wanted real action to tackle the problem, discussions were slowed and diluted by those who didn’t – even though they were only a handful, and weren’t all exactly law-abiding citizens. In that village, this became known as the “tyranny of the minority”, and it wasn’t the first time it had happened. 

But that wasn’t the only problem: there were some villagers who, honestly, were indifferent to the problem, others not interested in the concept as presented, and some who were too busy focusing on simply making money. There were others still who never showed up to the discussions, overly busy with their several jobs. Some just observed quietly, as if their opinion didn’t matter. Citizens from other villages came to observe the proceedings and had many strong opinions, but were not allowed to speak.

To make matters worse, the five most powerful men in the village – though incredibly different in character and constitution – often agree to water down deliberations in order to protect the status quo. The richest and most powerful of them, particularly, somehow counted for more than dozens and dozens of the other denizens in the village – nominally a democracy – and often is able to convince them to accept decisions previously deemed by them “unacceptable”. 

When the last day of discussions was upon the villagers, and the sense of possibility unexpectedly thickened the air, suddenly the most powerful villager declared that “more time was needed” to discuss the matter. Others followed suit, and that was that. It’s unclear how and when these discussions will be taken up again. 

It is certain, however, that the common good of all villagers was not served, and the robust prevention mechanism hoped for will remain elusive for now. Some villagers have begun to wonder whether there isn’t a better way to do things than to continue to allow a handful of them to determine the fate of the rest – even when clearly against the perceived common good of the village as a whole…