Calling A Spade A Backhoe - Response To Nalaka Gunawardena's Take On Mel

February 13, 2014

There recently appeared in the mass media an article by one Nalaka Gunawardena, titled “Who really killed Mel Gunasekera?” I began to read with keen interest what I thought was a factual account of this sordid and deplorable crime. My interest rapidly turned into astonishment, to put it rather diplomatically, when I discovered that the writer was unashamedly leveraging a personal tragedy for political advantage.


Let me begin by saying that the journalist (who is listed as a science writer on Wikipedia) seems wanting of evidence-based thinking. There isn’t a single shred of evidence brought forward in this article, to nullify the culpability of the prime suspect rounded up by the police, who acted swiftly in this particular case. Apparently this tragic death is an opportunity for Mr. Gunawardena to dismiss empirical wisdom, because “in a land where so many crimes are simply not solved and culprits never caught, some can’t believe this swift and efficient crime investigation. Public trust in institutions, once lost, is hard to regain.” Let us for a moment indulge Mr. Gunawardena’s belief that the police are inefficient. So, when the police swiftly apprehend the suspected culprit, what must we do? We could come forward with evidence to the contrary, if we have any. Any sane and socially responsible person would. If we don’t have any such evidence, we could let the experts manage this case and have justice take its course. Or, like Mr. Gunawardena, we could go around forming opinion out of the thin air, to free a suspected killer (who incidentally was caught on CCTV and is reported to have confessed to this crime). An astounding idea one must say.

It’s not only the lack of evidence that is disturbing about his analysis. It is also the writer’s style. “Aren’t we all contributors to the dreadful nightmare that has just consumed Mel? It has been nurtured by our indifference, denial (or worse) for decades.” He says. Whom is he talking about here – the police, the good citizens down the lane (they did report hearing a scream and stepping out to investigate3), all Sri Lankans or the world at large? Mr. Gunawardena displays a lack of humility like an inflated preacher on a pulpit, when he proposes to blame society for this crime, sans any practical suggestion to prevent such crimes in future, and ensure justice is done the way he envisions it to be. We shall come back to such helpful measures shortly.

altLet us also take a stab at the abstruse generalizations that Mr. Gunawardena makes; they seem to lack any objective content. “But life is precisely what has become worthless in our troubled land. Life today is so cheap it can be snapped away at the slightest provocation. Or even without any.” Okey, so what is he trying to point out here? Is he, for example, saying that the per-capita homicide rate in Sri Lanka (3.6/100K pop) is higher than certain other countries? If so, which country is he talking about? Certainly not the United States (homicides 4.7/100K pop), so perhaps he is talking about a Scandinavian country like Sweden (1/100K pop)? Of course we are behind Sweden or even the UK in crime prevention – there are historical reasons for this, and we all can readily acknowledge that we are a developing country emerging from economic hardship and even social immaturity in some respects. The more important question is, what is the trend in crime over the past five decades, adjusted for population growth, urbanization, and excluding the homicides committed during the civil war? It may or may not be a rosy picture, but it would make useful reading. As compared with the sort of sweeping assertion that Mr. Gunawardena makes, that either reeks of either terribly low self-esteem (the “we suck” mentality) or judgmentalism (“they suck”).

This is an awful personal tragedy that may, as Mr. Gunawardena rightly points out, force us to draw lessons for society at large. However these lessons should take the shape and form of awareness and prevention of crime through education and preparedness. They aught not to be a mindless trashing of our country’s socio-cultural fabric. Practical suggestions like allocating a precinct police officer, gearing the police to be receptive for consultation about assessing the background of casual hands, having a system for accrediting construction workers, training citizens how to recognize sociopathic personalities, TV programs to encourage empathy during childhood and adolescence, ethics to be taught as a subject at secondary school in an empirical and non-dogmatic fashion, and the tagging of known sociopathic characters by the police, are some measures that we could take. None of these can absolutely guarantee that homicides won’t take place, but they can at least lessen the crime rate.

We all must care when something absolutely awful like this happens. Which is why we must react with our brains and well as our hearts, to make our homes safer places to be.