When I was a girl about 4 years old, I ventured into the street with a playmate one hot afternoon to pop tar bubbles. Playing in the street was a no-no and my mother greeted me grim-faced when I came inside. “Were you playing in the street?” she asked. “No,” I said, quickly hiding my tar-stained fingers behind my back. She sent me to my room.
The afternoon stretched into an eternity, as my mom gave me opportunities to come clean, patiently insisting on a confession. My lies hardened along with the cooling asphalt outside. I was convinced that the longer I told my version, the more believable it would become. That changed when my dad came home, and by dinner—thanks to swift punishment and a stern word on the importance of being a truth-teller—I became a penitent.
Recalling that day nearly 50 years later, I marvel at the course my parents set me on with a simple lesson, one they might’ve been too busy or too tired to teach but pursued anyway. I have a better sense of my hard, stubborn heart now, and know they made a world of difference for demanding truth and choosing early to punish and correct.
Among human-rights groups, there is growing awareness of the problem of impunity. For so long these activists have been crying out about crimes against humanity. Now they are focusing on the authority structures that let criminals get away with them.
Two years ago in northern Nigeria, in the 48 hours following the election of Christian president Goodluck Jonathan, Muslim gangs destroyed hundreds of churches, torched businesses and homes, killing children in their beds as they went. I visited the area in 2012, and there were not enough hours in any day to see all the destruction (see “Nowhere to run,” March 10, 2012). Authorities didn’t catch the criminals, didn’t insist on cleanup, and refused permits for reconstruction. The laws to punish exist, but local Muslim authorities are too weak or choose not to enforce them when the victims are Christians.
Not surprisingly, attacks continue. Lawlessness grows. In April gangs pulled 16 supposed Christians from a bus in northern Nigeria and beheaded them. “A culture of death is gaining ground in my country,” said Mark Lipdo, who heads Stefanos Foundation, a human-rights watchdog in Nigeria. Lipdo spoke at two recent panels in Washington I was part of, where impunity became a central topic of discussion.
His experience in northern Nigeria stands in marked contrast to most U.S. law enforcement. For all the challenges for federal, state, and local authorities, Americans saw them rally to name and nab bomb suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in less than 72 hours after the Boston Marathon. Within 90 minutes of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Timothy McVeigh was arrested. Police officers who track transgressions big and small—McVeigh’s getaway car had no license plates—are the reason a man convicted of a bombing that killed 168 was caught.
The Obama administration has retreated at times from punishing lawbreaking (decriminalizing the sale of contraceptives to minors, refusing to enforce a federal marriage law, reneging on prosecuting 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed). It now finds itself in a serious, life-or-death bind on the world stage.
Late last year President Obama promised that Syria’s use of chemical weapons “would cross a red line and those responsible would be held to account.” In late April we learned that extensive blood tests by U.S. and British analysts confirmed that chemical weapons were used during a March attack on Aleppo.
In reporting the finding to Congress the White House hedged: “The chain of custody is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions,” while acknowledging that “any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime.” And Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has given the White House an out, calling on Russia and the UN “to finally take strong and meaningful action to end this crisis in Syria.”
The world waits. Will the culture of impunity—and lawlessness leading to a culture of death—grow? Or will there be costs to lawbreaking?