The perils of certainty and the last room
Thinking about the death penalty in Malaysia, the possibility of uncertainty, and how we see the world.
between our dreams and actions lies this world
I think I’ve always felt the idea of injustice keenly. It probably had a lot to do with reading, during my pre-teen years, books like To Kill A Mockingbird and A Tale of Two Cities—my favourite novel by Dickens, who was a court reporter for several years. To be honest, I don’t remember much of it now, but I remember that it had something of a transformative impact when I finished it for the first time. Emerging from its pages in my family’s end-of-the-road terrace house in one of Malaysia’s quieter second cities, the world felt suddenly bigger, its depths suddenly visible to me.
During my primary school years, I would creep out of my bedroom late at night to watch movies in the living room after my parents had gone to sleep. I frequented a laserdisc rental shop (while my parents waited in their car outside) and judged movies by their cover sleeves—and in hindsight, I was surprisingly open to suggestion. I don’t remember the uncle and aunty behind the counter ever trying to disabuse me of any titles. Some of my favourites were crime and courtroom dramas, like A Time to Kill and A Few Good Men (who can forget Tom Cruise’s “I want the truth!” and Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!”) Later: Dead Man Walking, which I found more unsettling, and 12 Angry Men.
After we moved to Kuala Lumpur, I had access to a much larger bookshop, Kinokuniya, and picked up more books on the subject. Back then, online culture curation wasn’t what it is now, and Kinokuniya was my guide: just by randomly browsing its maze-like shelves, I chanced upon nonfiction reads like A Trial by Jury by D. Graham Burnett and The Juryman’s Tale by Trevor Grove, which went some way in shaping my ideas on justice and reason and why diversity matters—an impartial jury only possible with a legit cross-section of the community and all that. It made my teenage self wish that I would one day be asked to carry out jury duty too, until I realised that the Malaysian government, having no faith in the laymen’s capacity to make reasoned judgments, had abolished it in the mid-nineties.
I think what captured my imagination about all these stories was the boiling cauldron of conflicting ideas you are invited to grapple with: guilt and innocence, denial and acceptance, damnation and redemption, life and death. Everything is at stake. That was probably why I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, and I did study law at university, but my writerly side won out in the end. It turned out I wasn’t interested so much in practicing law, but more in the theory of justice and how it came into being (reading case judgments to see what I could learn from judges’ reasoning process was an occasional past time), which goes hand in hand with the theory of truth, which of course has everything to do with reporting and telling stories, and informs every aspect of how we see the world, how we make decisions, and how we live.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the possibility of the untruth and the unknown. I think of myself, generally, as a gentle skeptic—in that I’ll hold something anyone tells me lightly, in a sort of state of suspended truth: I’ll accept it nominally as true, until something either reconfirms it or debunks it. Honestly, it gives me quite a bit of anxiety, this delicate business of determining the truth (I’m speaking, here, of something more nuanced than fact), especially when something neither debunks nor confirms but remains just off-kilter, just disobliges to conform to what you already know: a puzzle that doesn’t quite fit. That’s when it gets tricky—though it can also be exciting if you find something unexpected. And sometimes, it can feel downright existential.
By which I mean: I worry often about all the shades of truths to a truth, and how just one tiny piece withheld, obscured, or uncovered could change how one sees everything. It’s kept me up at night when I’ve turned over a piece to editors, made me dream about my teeth falling out. I’ve even dreamt about editors replying, pointing out all the ways in which I’ve erred, and then I’m re-writing the piece in my dream, line by line—it’s very specific!—and all of a sudden I’ve penned a whole piece and I wake up and realise that none of it actually happened. Sometimes, even months later, when a piece has long been published and no one has decried anything I wrote as myopic, inadequate, or false, I’ll come across something that reminds me of a piece I wrote and I’ll feel the urge to double-check if everything in it still holds.
I’m grateful to one magazine editor for understanding this about me when I was a younger reporter, and how he chose to see it in the best possible light. Having submitted a long feature that required detailed research and reporting, I made some changes days later so that my language would be more accurate in places, less susceptible to interpretations I never intended. I think this stressed the deputy editor out a little—understandable, since it was his responsibility to close the issue. But the chief editor pointed out gently that, hey, at least I was coming from a place of conscientiousness, and suggested I build more time into my process going forward.
It’s a little obsessive, I know. After all, it’s just not realistic to cover the ground exhaustively on any subject at any one time, especially given the limited time and scope when one is writing to deadlines. Still, that doesn’t stop me from worrying that I haven’t done enough—of reporting, of fact-checking, of clarifying my language—even as I have to move on to other stories. Once, I visited a block of low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur to find out the residents’ everyday concerns, and what they thought about the upcoming general elections and their constituency’s candidates. That day, I managed to speak to eight families, and my main takeaway was: in a country where people prefer to keep their votes secret for fear of blowback, they’re telling people they’re going to vote for the incumbent government, when they’re actually planning to vote for the opposition. But wait, what if I were to speak to another five families, or another ten families? Might my takeaway change?
Then, there’s the dilemma, too, of differing fact interpretations. We can’t help but see the world through our own eyes, and we make judgments based on our own experiences. Give a bunch of people the same set of facts and they might all come to different insights about them. Another time, in the run-up to the same Malaysian general election, I was observing a political candidate at a walkabout, with a British media trainer shadowing me. At some point, he said, “Look at the man’s wife, her Louis Vuitton shoes. She’s not a simple woman. Maybe she wields some influence in his decisions.” And I thought, That could be true. Or she could just be a rich woman. Or it could have just been her best pair of shoes. We figure out what’s going on in any given situation by reading cues, but what if the way we’ve learned to read cues—predicated on what we’re told is human behaviour—isn’t always right?
Then, in Kolkata last year, when one of the Chinese uncles in the city’s old Chinatown told me, “You know, tourists go to the Sunday morning market with their cameras and they take photographs of the old Chinese women sitting on the street and they think they’re poor. But what they don’t know is that that these old Chinese women have children in Switzerland, Austria, Canada. They can leave and go abroad anytime they want to, but they like Kolkata, because life is good here if you have some money. So of course when these old ladies see their pictures online, posted on a blog or something, saying they’re poor, they’re not happy, because it’s not true!”
Just this morning, I read this Nieman Lab piece, Fact-checking can’t do much when people’s ‘dueling facts’ are driven by values instead of knowledge:
Those who care about oppression look for oppression—so they find it.
Those who care about security look for threats to it—and they find them.
In other words, people do not end up with the same answers because they do not begin with the same questions. […]
Education is another possible means of encouraging consensus perceptions, but it can actually make things worse. Rather than training people how to think more reasonably, college and graduate school merely sharpen the lenses graduates use to perceive reality. In our data, those with higher levels of education are more, not less, divided. And the higher the level of training, the more tightly values and perceptions intertwine. Education provides the tools to more efficiently match their preferred values to their perceived facts.
Based on this evidence, we conclude that dueling fact perceptions (or what some have labeled “alternative facts”) are probably here to stay, and worsen.
None of this is reassuring.
In light of all this, I’m generally more prone to uncertainty than I am to certainty. I’m more ready than not to doubt what I know, to question my assumptions and biases, when a new aspect of a thing reveals itself. I find it hard to commit absolutely to one perspective or another. I’m liable to always question myself, at the introduction of a newfound fact that shifts the ground, Wait, was I wrong? A friend told me recently that I should try writing op-eds, but I think I would struggle with that.
And I’m thinking about something a newsroom editor said to me a few years ago: “Emily, you’ve got to wear your heart on your sleeve!”
Such a great line, isn’t it? Sounds like advice for the lovelorn. But it had to do with a story I was writing, and what I think he really meant was: all you can do is take a stand based on the facts that you’ve, under limited circumstances and limited time, found out—and if you’re called upon, defend your ground based on what you’ve seen, and admit it when you’ve got it wrong. That’s all you can do, or you’d be too afraid to ever say anything worthwhile. And then what kind of writer would you be?
Having said that, I think I’ve gotten better at this in recent years. I’ve felt more ready to editorialise—albeit subtly—in stories that aren’t straight news stories; I’ve learned to rely on my own insights with more confidence. I’ve also grown more comfortable with the idea that I won’t always get everything right for everyone, that none of us who work at documenting and portraying the world will always get it right for everyone; and I feel more ready to face criticism (even if reactive and unjustified), should it arise. The attempt to understand and tell people’s stories is always worthwhile, as long as we’ve made a reasonable reading of the facts and made an effort to understand them in context. You’ve got to believe that to do this work.
But occasionally, I still dream about my teeth falling out.
I guess all of this is my roundabout way of saying this is why I’m in favour of abolishing the death penalty: the possibility of making mistakes, at every stage of the legal process. Others who support abolition might emphasise the fact that death is not an effective deterrent to the commission of crimes; or that everyone, even those who commit murder, deserves a chance at redemption; or that if we acknowledge taking a life is wrong, it follows that the state shouldn’t do the same.
I mostly agree with all that, but the most persuasive reason to abolish the death penalty, for me, is that no legal system is perfect. It’s not a matter of criticising or blaming anyone for not doing their jobs right. Even if everyone were to act in good faith, there could still be mistakes. And if we accept that, how can we commit the irrevocable?
Some who argue in favour of the death penalty believe that an eye should be taken for an eye, that the only way to redemption is to surrender in kind. To be honest, I’m sympathetic to that view, especially when I think of the most heinous crimes like murder and rape, and especially when committed, in cold blood, against children. But then, the mere thought of the possibility of a wrongful conviction is enough to give me pause.
Given the inevitability of mistakes (to my mind, the only question would be how often they occur), I guess the question to answer is: Would you rather let a few murderous criminals live—in prison, for life, mind you—than sentence even one person to death for a crime he didn’t commit? Or would you rather let one innocent person hang for the certainty of knowing that the most hardcore criminals get their just desserts?
It’s a question Malaysians are currently grappling with, since the announcement in October last year of a proposal to abolish the death penalty totally—a reform that has since been postponed and may be reduced to a partial abolition instead due to some vocal, high-profile opposition. In Malaysia, where death row is metaphorically called “the last room” (in Malay: bilik akhir), the term “wrongful convictions” doesn’t exist in our legal vocabulary. We don’t have a way to weed them out, unlike in other jurisdictions like the U.S., the U.K., or Taiwan. I wrote more about this for New Naratif, so I won’t go into it here. But I want to point you to some gut-wrenching stories of people in other countries who were convicted for murder and sentenced to death; and then later—posthumously, uselessly—found innocent. What’s left to do but to clear their names?
Parents of wrongly-executed Chinese man say they wanted to live long enough just to clear son's name
The case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texan whose story is told in appalling and highly readable detail in Trial by Fire by David Grann. Willingham was found guilty of killing his three young daughters by arson on his own home and executed in 2004 when he was thirty-six years old. Unlike the other two cases, he was never exonerated, despite post-conviction findings pointing overwhelmingly to his innocence.
The crux of the mistake in Willingham’s case? The interpretation of evidence: “The jury was out for barely an hour before returning with a unanimous guilty verdict. As Vasquez put it, ‘The fire does not lie.’”
No, the fire does not. But human knowledge does. There are always things we don’t yet know—and in this case, there were things arson investigators didn’t yet know about how fire works. Human knowledge is never complete, it’s constantly evolving. In his story, Grann lays out the brittleness of our deeply held certainties, and I recommend you read it before watching its adaptation for the big screen this year.
I’ll leave you with this from Benjamin Witts’s piece from The Atlantic, I Know Brett Kavanaugh, but I Wouldn’t Confirm Him:
I […] am haunted by doubt, by the certainty of uncertainty and the consequent possibility of injustice. I spent a lot of time this weekend thinking about Oliver Cromwell’s famous letter to the Church of Scotland in which he implored, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” I also spent some time with Learned Hand’s similar maxim, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” We all need to think it possible that we may be mistaken; we all need to be not too sure that we are right.
Update: The published story
For New Naratif, I wrote about the problems with Malaysia’s legal system that make the continued application of the death penalty dangerous, as well as the government’s proposed reforms, discussed through the case of Mainthan Arumugam. Convicted for murder, he has been on death row for fourteen years, and his repeated pleas for royal clemency have been rejected. His lawyers are arguing that one element of the crime of murder—in fact, the act itself—has not been made out beyond all reasonable doubt, due to the ambiguity surrounding the identity of the alleged victim (apparently, he’s still alive!), and activists are highlighting his case as an example where fresh evidence needs to be reconsidered. But there’s been no progress. His wife Gunalakshmi Karupaya continues to lobby for his pardon and release.
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A story I loved
We’ll Always Have Paris: My Time in Texas with Sam Shepard’s Notebooks by Madelaine Lucas:
Crucially, the small town that gives Paris, Texas its name never actually features in it. It remains a place of longing, a barren plot of land that stands for that ever-elusive dream. Homecoming, the film seems to suggest, is like the parable about the man and the river—you can’t go home again, because, after a separation, it is never quite the same place because you are no longer the same person. It is here that the movie subverts the familiar trope of Westerns, where the return to the hearth and homestead offers peace, stability, comfort and above all, resolution—it is the curtain falling on the hero’s journey.
Shepard, for his part, resisted this kind of closure: “I hate endings,” he said in The Paris Review, “Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster. […] The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius.”
Something to tickle your funny bone
Three episodes into Netflix’s Our Planet, this is my favourite clip. I see now why people go bird-watching!
Some words to live by
Siberian photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva on the importance of holding on to the child in you, even as you grow older:
More and more, I was coming back to the memories of my childhood. I felt, almost physically, how I was losing this childish awe. It was just a little bit of this left in me, and I felt like it was shrinking, shrinking, shrinking day by day, and I needed to photograph it while it was still there—a little bit, at least. [...] When it was over, I felt that I lost something. Because I'm not going to be like this, ever again.