20-year old university student Özgecan Aslan was trying to get back home on the evening of 11 February 2015. The pocket money she had was modest. Trusting that she would be safe using public transport, she took a minibus. When Özgecan was left alone in the vehicle, the driver, Suphi Altındöken, drove the minibus to a deserted area. Özgecan understood what was going to happen. She resisted. She fought back with all her might. The driver first stabbed her several times. Then he struck multiple times with an iron bar on her head to make sure that she was dead. He drove back to the town and met with his father Necmettin Altındöken and his friend Fatih Gökçe. They drove outside the city and burnt the body. They were arrested two days later.
Impact Violent Acts Of Crime
Özgecan’s murder has shaken Turkey from its very core. Violent acts of crime have a strong impact on us; we express strong emotions because of strong stimuli. As humans are emotional beings, this is healthy and normal. What is not normal is the ways in which we allow emotions cloud our thinking.
Faults of our thinking become obvious especially when we start talking about justice. We put the emphasis on punishment as a policy of deterrence. This is how we quickly arrive at the death penalty. The more violent the crime is the quicker people start talking about ending lives of the perpetrators. Hysteria can easily intensify. And rationality is suspended. This is how a sports commentator in Turkey can take the liberty to share his view on the subject matter on TV. He said: “Prisons have their own codes of justice. You should be at ease…I think they will pray every day to die…” (16 February 2015).
The commentator said what he said without any hesitation. This is because he knew that he was voicing a common wish. People in Turkey can hardly wait for the trial. This is a high level of hysteria. People will gradually get relatively calmer. And finally we will be able to start talking about important things such as causes of crime in general and violent crime, in particular.
It is easy to unite in our collective feeling of grief and disgust. But we immediately disunite in our understanding of the causes of crime. We seem to think if we take refuge in clichés, we can solve every problem. The major one-size-fits-all solution in Turkey is education.
When people criticize such clichés, we raise our hopes. We think that someone will finally say something different, something more substantial. We are quickly disappointed when we find out that even when the statement is correct, the dialectics behind it is usually crippled.
There is nothing wrong with the argument. One can dismiss education as a remedy for all ills. It could even be a valid point. There is one simple condition for asserting a point: it must be supported with sound premises. We have to ask if the main claim qualifies as a reasonable point. In this case, we have to admit that it does not. The assertion is emotionally-charged. Education is eliminated as a panacea for the wrong reasons.
According to the faulty argument, we cannot attribute monstrous acts of crime to humans. Therefore, these acts cannot be tackled rationally. This is how education is dismissed as a solution. We suffer from an inability of framing what we experience. This is how we start thinking creatively in the wrong direction. And we reduce the perpetrators to non-human creatures. This is how we think we can solve the problem. This is an immature coping mechanism against the brutal reality.
Our imagination knows no limits. Once we have our non-human monsters, we try to rationalize their violent nature. Here we get very close to the heart of the discussion. But our conformist nature persists again. We manage to bypass reality. And we delve right into pure fantasy again.
We cannot call a monster ignorant or insane. This would be a contradiction in terms. We must then find something else to put the blame on. A typical strategy is appealing to nature. We relate excessive testosterone levels or even a bad crime gene with the non-human action. Everything is reduced to an unpleasant freak show in the end.
This is what we do: We dance around the reality of structural violence. Because we are not ready to take responsibility for what happened. On the contrary, we passionately argue against those who try to relate what we see as monstrous acts with our culture. There is, however, no way around ignoring basic facts. The more we resist, the more reality persists.
It is true that the culprits are disturbed people. But they are definitely not non-humans. They are human beings. Sure, their behavioral patterns need examination. It is unlikely that we discover their demonic nature after this study. A healthy and mature approach would be accepting the facts: We are collectively responsible for what happened.
We have to see the irony. When we are defending our culture, we fall into all kinds of contradictions. This commentary is on the surface about a case in Turkey: Özgecan’s murder. But I am sure readers from other parts of the world will recognize family resemblances; they will relate the discussion to their own local realities.
It is difficult to make peace with reality. But we have to understand that we have a share in these acts of crime. Otherwise, we are being hypocritical. We should stop exercising in futility. We cannot distance ourselves by classifying these crimes disingenuously as monstrous acts. This is a conservative strategy. And it is destined to run into a stone wall. There is, however, a way out. We can learn from the singularities of these unique incidents. And then we can choose to take the plunge and delve into comparative thinking. And learn the necessary lessons.
It is true that each act of crime comprises unique elements. This is why it is difficult to have consensus on the particular causes of crime. The practice is hard. But we have to try clustering unique cases and arrive at particularities. We have to talk about the causes of the crime – simply because assigning individual responsibility for the crime is an easy way out.
This is the point where we lose most of our discussants. They strongly resist when the debate is begging for being elevated. It is, of course, easier to conform to faulty but familiar thinking. Thus, the usual tendency is going back to a strong emotional state and remaining there. This is why we usually end our discussions at this threshold.
Our hesitation to further our thinking is partly understandable. We know that beyond this point, likelihood of misunderstanding is high. And we may feel frustrated by the reactions of others. Nevertheless, we still have to take this risk and push our ideas into a conclusion. This is what we owe to Özgecan and all other nameless and faceless women around the globe.
Practice Of Assigning Individual Responsibility
The practice of assigning individual responsibility for the crime has a shaky basis. The point can be explained in reference to firstly having the intention to commit the crime and secondly taking a conscious decision to do so. The latter is obviously the most important in the eye of the law. When the subject takes a conscious decision to commit a crime, we can start talking about his or her responsibility for the crime.
After the perpetrator takes the decision, the crime is committed either spontaneously or in a planned way. Such decisions have consequences. Once the crime is committed, we get into the debate of crime, justice, and punishment. Put the qualitative differences aside, the process is more or less the same all over the globe. This is how we lose our grab on what matters the most: pre-decisional causes.
Social Science disciplines have different ways of conceptualizing pre-decisional causes. We can avoid the jargon and define pre-decisional causes simply as a socio-psychological package. This is a sheaf of beliefs, attitudes, and dispositions. To explain with an analogy, this is the software. And the server is society. These so-called monsters are not teleported to our world from a parallel universe. They are the products of our society. We are the programmers. We contributed to this program with the lines of code we wrote.
We must all feel where the heart of the matter lies. Is this not why we always end up talking about education? What we don’t seem to understand is that without changing the society in its entirety, education can only reproduce it. This is, in fact, what is happening today. Despite our sincere feelings to challenge what bothers us all, we render ourselves passive. I close with a set of questions.
Are we not done getting psychological satisfaction from discussing creative ways of punishing the perpetrators? Whose lives are we trying to make miserable? Are we ready to act against the all-encompassing constellation within which the pre-decisional causes of crime are generated? Or, are we good like this, contributing to our own misery, and complaining about it occasionally?