Aluu & all of us

I have silently observed the widespread outrage that has arisen in the wake of the recent deaths of young men at the hands of the people of a town called Aluu. I initially thought to merely observe the very predictable responses expected (and I have not been surprised in the least) and to say nothing of it all, but I think I should say a few things.

First, let me get something out of the way. What happened at Aluu was wrong. It was inexcusably. unjustifiably evil. I do not believe I need to justify this statement. The wrongness of it cannot be overstated.

But (you knew there would be a “but” coming, didn’t you?) what happened at Aluu was—and this is the part I know will be hard to swallow—human. When earlier I referred to the “people of Aluu,” I know some will take exception to my calling them “people,” and insist that normal, or sane, human beings could not possibly do such a thing. I beg to differ. I submit that “normal” humans are not only capable of such evil, but actually do perpetrate them. And as for their mental health being called into question, suffice to say that, as a mental health professional, I take exception to real and difficult illnesses being named as possible causes of wickedness, as though the two were somehow synonymous. It’s the worst kind of disrespect to those who live with the reality of true mental illness.

Now please, don’t get me wrong. I am not in any way excusing the people of Aluu. I am only saying we must not consider Aluu as a unique case. And I only ask that we consider for a moment the truth of the matter. Most of us have witnessed the merciless beating of people accused of stealing or other crimes. I have seen young adults and adolescents, and even mere children, stripped naked and beaten within an inch of their lives. I have heard many express, wholeheartedly or tacitly, support of such things. I have heard people say, when accused of what we’re accusing the people of Aluu of, things like, “You don’t know the wickedness of those people,” or words to similar effect. I have even heard it said about the present case.

Now, let nobody say that Aluu was “different.” If I beat you silly and stupid, what I have done is wrong. Should you be so fortunate as to live, your survival would hardly be to my credit. And make no mistake, the people who do such things as I am describing are hardly the dregs of society. I have seen this behaviour in rich and poor, in GRAs as in slums, in weddings and funerals and churches and shrines. And let us not even discuss here the woes that betide many a thieving house help, for as little as fifty naira.

No, I do not think the evil that happened at Aluu was unique. And that is, I think, the real tragedy: the potential for evil inherent in the human heart. There is a large body of work that has shown that people in groups are capable of levels of evil that, alone, they would never consider. And conversely, much of what we think are our virtues are more environmental than we might like to think. Outside the environments we’re familiar with, or in unusual circumstances, some really unpleasant things may easily come out. Notable here are Milgram’s unnerving studies, and Zimbardo’s prison experiments. We may remember Abu Ghraib and what young, otherwise normally adjusted young men did. Or we may come closer home and simply consider how less kind we are to others when we are with our friends. Something about being in a group makes us different. The research suggests that a reduced sense of personal responsibility is behind this: it’s not my decision, it’s OUR decision, so I’m not to blame.

And for those who castigate the people who watched as those young men were killed, I imagine they did not watch the videos. Because the pictures alone show that they were killed, did they not? Was there any need to see the videos for confirmation? Or was there, perhaps, something more sinister at work? A desire to SEE for ourselves? Does it not worry you that like vampires, we feed on the evil that others do in this way?

(Forgive me if I sound harsh, but we simply must acknowledge the truth if we are to get anywhere, and I really do not know a nicer way to say this. I didn’t see the videos myself, but I do not think less of anyone who did. I am only saying that in itself is a signal to the fact that there is something deeply amiss in our hearts.)

My point, as I come to a conclusion, so that we must not over-distance ourselves in order to feel outrage. Yes, it’s easier to believe that Aluu could only happen among a group of monsters in human skin, among people without the slightest trace of a conscience, seared beyond redemption. Easier to believe, but most likely untrue.

I hope I have made myself clear. I have not said anything in all of this about who was to blame in the tragedy of Aluu. I know that there are those who only seek to cast blame and who cannot read a piece like this without imagining that blame is somehow being cast one way or another, but I am doing no such thing. I am only saying that we must not consider Aluu as unique, that as we rightly condemn what happened, we must remember to shudder also at the fearful fact that the people who did this wicked thing were people.

People just like you and me.

P.S. Let me, however, attempt to lay blame. The tragedy of Aluu, is I think, more a symptom than a sickness. Yes, something should be done about it. Yes, the perpetrators should be brought to book. But at the end of the day, the truth is that, in any society where the perception reigns that the law is incompetent or ineffective, people will take it into their hands, period. It really is that simple. And until the law does carry some real weight, Aluu will probably repeat itself. That is not to say that the people are justified. They are not. What I am saying is, in the absence of a solid and working law—that is SEEN to be working—it will recur, because those who would do such things would feel justified.


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