Sunday, February 22, 2009

Trying to catch a thief

In SA with it high levels of criminality and corruption we often find ourselves in situations where we have to choose between actively confronting and resisting the “evil” or, on the other hand, accepting the inevitable, letting go and allowing some problems to resolve themselves. Put differently: we are faced with the decision to engage, to hit back or to simply back off.

That we need to engage with our unique kinds of problems and actively help to counter atrocities and misdeeds in our society, speaks for itself. This is an ongoing responsibility we as members of civil society have. The question is how to be really creative and effective in curbing careless, offensive and even criminal behaviour and in helping our society to become more peaceful and whole. There are many examples of attempts to resist unpalatable, anti-social behaviour, of standing up against crime, that are unhelpful and damaging. It is possible that in standing up for what is right one may yourself be exhibiting less ethical behaviour, or a kind of foolishness that puts not only one’s own life at risk, but also the lives of others. In fact, in close encounters with criminal activity, we should be watchful that our well intended acts of resistance do not boomerang, or have the opposite effect and thus cause unnecessary pain and even embarrassment - like the day when I tried to catch a thief.
I surprised an intruder in our home one morning, having returned from town earlier than he expected. I can still recall my stunned shock, looking into his bewildered eyes, realizing the potential danger I was in. So, sensibly, I backed off and calmly offered him an escape route … which he took. However, the moment he had left and was out in the garden, my anger and annoyance surfaced and I found myself shouting, chasing after him. I wanted him to know that this was unacceptable and that he should never ever try this again.

In going after the culprit I became so intent on apprehending him that I stirred up a number of neighbours, and ended up a couple of streets away with an outcome that I could hardly have anticipated. In front of a home where some who had joined me in the chase said the thief was hiding, a voice from across the road suddenly announced that he had dogs that he would send over to help. So the next moment two keen, agitated German Weimaraners were let out. But - listen to this - instead of going after the thief, they went for me!

This shifted the attention in such a way that the thief got away while I ended up in the doctor’s rooms having to receive 12 stitches for my wounds. If the absconding youngster had not already skipped another fence and was actually still in the vicinity, he surely would have had something to smile about. I, on the other hand, learnt some important lessons about confronting criminality in our country. In honesty, I didn’t have too many regrets about my reaction. I think my thief got the message. However, I am not sure that my behaviour contributed significantly to diminishing criminal activity in our community. One place to start with a more lasting solution, would be to ask where the bewilderment that I initially had noticed in the eyes of the rather shabby young man, had come from.

Carel Anthonissen

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