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Ming Zhen Shakya

The Fail-Safe Solution

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

Rural Pakistani jurisprudence has recently caused the world a bit of a shock. We all recoiled at the manifest injustice of a case's disposition. Innocence had been formally sacrificed, and we reacted as if the concept was completely unfamiliar to us. The event seemed to take place in that peculiar moment in time when we look up from the sidewalk and glance sidewards to see our reflection in a storefront window... and don't recognize who it is we are looking at.

A young man from a poor family had been accused of sexually violating a woman from a rich family. The economics of the situation there, as here, no doubt had some influence upon the proceedings.

After the male members of the woman's family thoroughly sodomized the young man as their "in-house" punishment, they brought the matter to the tribal council for adjudication.

There in a rustic setting, with no Corinthian columns and cascading steps to announce the presence of enthroned, majestic Law, a group of tribal elders convened to administer justice as they understood justice.

The issue was family honor, not an individual's crime and an individual's victimization. This was the collective mentality that we suppose we have suppressed in favor of the rights of individuals. "Ah," we say, "It is better to let ten guilty men go free than to punish an innocent man" - as if we knew of a single prosecutor who ever built his reputation using that line as a motto.

But the Pakistani town elders appreciated neither the refinements of Islamic law nor their government's inherited Magna Carta benefits. Their job was to maintain law and order in the community - which to them meant that they had to act to prevent intra-tribal strife, the kind of family vendettas that are as terrible in the real conflicts of the Hatfields and McCoys of Appalachian life no less than in the fictional disputes between the Capulets and Montagues of Elizabethan drama. These family hostilities are troublesome enough, but when economics is introduced into the conflict, family disputes escalate into those cause/effect/ cause/effect clashes that sooner or later become class warfare.

The council tried to negotiate an equitable deal, one that would restore the peace. They proposed that the poor young man marry the rich woman he had dishonored - a solution that flowed as a natural consequence of his action. However, since that alliance could hardly pay for the damage done to the rich family's honor, they further proposed that the young man's sister, a pretty thirty-year old divorcee, marry one of the victim's brothers.

The sister, foreseeing the life of domestic and sexual servitude that awaited her, shattered this exquisitely wrought negotiation by flatly rejecting the offer. She stated the obvious: she had not been party to the crime and should not be party to the punishment. (A rich man often has more than one wife, and a woman from a poor family, procured by such measures, is not exactly fortunate to be numbered among them.)

Frustrated in their attempt to reach an accord through the time-honored "joining of two houses" solution to intra-tribal strife, the council decided on a quid-pro-quo approach. Since one family had been dishonored by the sexual transgression of another family, an action, "equal and opposite" as Newton might have said, was in order.

Specifically, a male from one family had violated a female of another family, and parity could only be achieved when a male or males of the victim's family were allowed to violate a female from the offending family. Four males of the original victim's family proceeded to gang rape the innocent sister.

It was assumed that her screams would be the last that anyone heard from her on the subject and that certainly she would never go public with the ugly details. But public she went and so the world was shocked.

The idea that a government would deliberately punish the innocent for the crimes or mistakes of another - the surrogate "whipping boy" or demonized scapegoat, is an old idea. But with the rise of democratic principles we assumed that such practices as still exist had been safely relegated to the status of quaint folk customs... dropping a "judas" goat from a tower and all that sort of thing. But the program in the human brain that orchestrates this peculiar behavior is still running.

An extremely interesting illustration of such surrogate quid-pro-quo justice can be found in the now eerily strange 1964 film Fail Safe.

Fail Safe was not a low budget flick tossed together by a few opportunists. It starred Henry Fonda as the President of the United States and other fine actors such as Larry Hagman, Fritz Weaver, and Walter Matthau. Sidney Lumet directed. Its fictional plot line was logically derived from a real-life scenario.

The Cold War between the Communist countries and the rest of the world was at its most dangerous point during those years. The Strategic Air Command (SAC) kept bombers flying around the clock, 24/7, all fully armed with nuclear bombs. If Russian nuclear weapons were launched against us or our allies, there would be an immediate counter-strike by those bombers.

In the film, an unidentified flying object has breached the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line or some such invisible barrier the trespass of which constituted a potential attack. Yes, it could have been an off-course civilian plane... or one of those infamous flocks of geese showing up on a radar screen; but in those days, nobody took chances. The "alert status" of the bombers is raised a color or two on the danger spectrum; and a group of six planes, five carrying nuclear weapons and the sixth carrying only defensive decoying missiles, is directed towards Moscow.

The intruding object is identified as a harmless civilian aircraft and an order is sent to the bombers to return to their base; but the Russians have jammed communications, preventing the order from reaching the planes. The bombers proceed accordingly with their mission.

The President makes a "hot line" phone call to the Russian president and explains the error, and asks that the jamming be ceased so that he can order the bombers to 'stand down' and return home. The Russians comply and the President orders the pilots to return, but too much time has elapsed and the pilots have already opened their "final" orders which, in fear of enemy trickery by vocal mimicry or other falsified communication, cannot be countermanded. There is no way to rescind the order to strike Moscow. The planes continue their mission, and wisely, the Russian leader quickly leaves Moscow.

The U.S. President offers to assist the Russians in destroying our planes before they can reach Moscow. Helpful technical information is given and four of the bombers that carried nuclear weapons are destroyed. But the Russians are also capable of making misjudgments, and feeling rather macho after these four kills, they decline to heed our frantic insistence that they ignore the lead plane which carries only decoy missiles and direct their surviving fighters to attack the lone remaining H-bomb carrying bomber. This error results in the bomber getting past their primary defenses. Moscow is soon likely to be obliterated.

The Russian president understandably cannot decide if this is all an elaborate trick - a real attack in the making, or whether he should accept the word of the President that it is a terrible mistake. If he decides that it's a trick - as his military advisors are insisting, he will launch his atomic arsenal and naturally we'll respond and the planet will be baked in a nuclear holocaust.

In a four-way phone conversation - the two presidents and two ambassadors, an American in Moscow and a Russian ambassador to the UN in New York, discuss the required redress of grievance. Using the same quid-pro-quo rationale that the unsophisticated Pakistani Elders followed, the chiefs of state settle upon an 'equitable' solution: One family has inflicted a dishonoring injury upon the innocent member of another family; therefore an injury, "equal and opposite" must be inflicted upon an innocent member of the offending family.

The President proposes that if the U.S. bomber gets through Russian secondary defenses and destroys Moscow he will immediately order a Washington-based bomber to obliterate New York City . This should, he believes, induce the Russians to accept our assurance that we have paid for our mistake and that they need not retaliate. The Russian president agrees to the proposal, lamenting that the catastrophe was accidental and that no one is really to blame. But the U.S. President insists that both of them are to blame because they let things go too far. They should have acted sooner and more responsibly - before their terrible war machines got out of control.

We know that Moscow will be incinerated when the phone line of the American ambassador melts down into an awful whine. We hear the whine and the President gives the order to destroy New York. The film ends as the Russian UN Ambassador's phone emits the same terrible sound.

Fail Safe was a serious movie and, though it does not seem so far-fetched now as it did on Nine-Ten, it was taken very seriously in 1964. (I think that at that time scientists estimated that between the U.S. and Russia there were enough nuclear weapons to destroy every man, woman, and child on the planet thirty-seven times.)

In the film , the U.S. President's acceptance of responsibility was laudable, but his solution was considered naive in later, more litigious times when cash could compensate the loss of anything, even one's own lack of common sense. People said that the president should simply have opened Fort Knox and asked the Swiss to broker the transfer of a large chunk of gold - compensation for damages and a little extra for the inconvenience. New Yorkers, in particular, preferred this alternative.

But poor countries, like poor families, cannot simply write a check; and seeing themselves more often as victims of civil law and not as beneficiaries, they tend to adjudicate their own disputes, using ancient scriptures to guide their ministrations. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. And when body-part amputations seem impractical, chattel is proffered. Unfortunately, in most societies, women are or have been chattel.

It is nothing short of amazing how quickly a tarnished human being can acquire the patina of old, burnished righteousness. Five minutes after we correct a defect in a social contract, we gleam with ancient rectitude. If, on Monday, we grant a right long overdue or ban an injurious practice too long tolerated, on Tuesday we tremble with consternation when viewing the error in those "backward" societies that have not yet corrected it.

And so we look with horror at the sentence imposed by the Pakistani Elders - but it was not that long ago that an American woman could be raped with impunity. If she dared to bring charges against her attacker, she'd discover that it was her character that was put on trial. So outrageous were the tactics of the defense that she was seen as having consented to - if not actually inviting - the assault; that by reputation she was known to be as idiotically promiscuous as an amateur call-girl; that her bruises were evidence of her preference for 'rough sex'; and that her motive in bringing charges against the accused was either malicious revenge or financial enrichment.

It was not until the advent of DNA testing that a rape victim over the age of seven could have even a remote chance of being vindicated - and even then she would have to prove that she had not willingly participated in her own battery. In any case, by the time the trial ended her reputation would be so damaged that her family would be disgraced and she'd be a pariah in her own social group.

So we must lengthen our memories to extend beyond yesterday - back to the day before - when we were not so quick to express our dismay at the sacrifice of innocence.

We also have our own religious fanatics whose vision of the world does not extend beyond tribal perspectives, and whose god became mute after he was quoted in syllables that could provide them with a reason to hate. (One of human nature's wretched ironies is that the most flagrant judicial abuses are those which are claimed to be based upon religious codes of conduct.)

There is little difference between the sacrifice of innocent New Yorkers in the cause of world peace than there is in sacrificing an innocent sister in the cause of tribal peace. And now, as we can more clearly see, this solution - this equal and opposite detriment - does not necessarily constitute justice.

In Pakistan, a civil court convened to bring to trial those who had conducted the young man's trial and also those who had carried out 'his' sentence. The court condemned to death the four men who had raped the sister; and she, responding with bitterness that had accumulated during years of oppression, agreed that yes, they should die for their crime.

The condemned men have appealed the sentence. That it will be carried out is just about as likely as a real president of the United States willingly sacrificing American civilians because the machinery of war has gotten beyond his or her control. If Fail-Safe taught us anything it is that even parity is unacceptable.

And so we are caught in that brief moment in time when we glance sidewards at our reflection in the storefront window and wonder who it is who has turned to look at us.


Last modified: July 11, 2004
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