Dealing with Murder
If we live by the dictum 'eye for an eye'
the process may continue
till all of us turn blind.
Imagine a Native American camp 300 years ago somewhere in the American Midwest. A young man of an Omaha tribal camp is murdered. People are deeply hurt. Young men clamor for revenge. In small communities where people know each other there are no secrets; everyone knows the murderer and the antecedents. So, a murderer cannot run and hide, for no one would give protection. In a week's time he is captured and brought to camp.
Murder is a serious matter in Native American societies. So on a day fixed for the trial almost the whole community has gathered, i.e. all the men and many women. Everyone is standing forming a big circle. The council of elders sits in a prominent place so that all can see and hear them. The murderer is brought inside the open space in the circle. He walks around with head bent and eyes downcast. Everyone has seen him before and knows who his relatives are. One or more men of his camp might be in the crowd; but they only observe, none of them are there to defend him. His people know that he is guilty and to defend him would mean war. Surely many more deaths would occur and long time enmity ensue. They also know the dignity, strength, and fairness of tribal justice.
The young man knows he will be killed, but he is brave; he does not seek pity or pardon. He had acted in a moment of blind anger, but he knows the severity of his deed. He is therefore prepared for the worst. The elders begin their deliberations. Most recommend death penalty.
After hearing everyone, the chief speaks: "Brothers, cousins, sons, nephews, today we have gathered over an unhappy incident. A young nephew is killed when he had long life ahead of him. His untimely death makes us cry like children in public even though we are grown men. I can see that you are very angry. I do not blame you for wanting revenge. But I want you to know that death to the killer is an easy, cowardly, thoughtless penalty. I am sure you also know that this can lead to a chain of killings.
Yes, there is a wiser and more humane alternative. But we have to be very brave, for it is difficult beyond endurance. And it is not my original idea. I have witnessed our ancestors applying it many times. Are you ready to consider it? All the elders gestured yes.
The chief said, "make this young man a cousin to replace the one who is no more."
Nobody opposed the idea. The Chief gestured to some young men to give gifts to the youth. The young man was dumb struck, but he bowed to the offer. Mustering all his strength of character he lived the rest of his life as an ideal relative in the new camp.
June 10, 2006