Philosophical Itch: ‘The Drowning Man Trial’ – What Would You Do?

Watch Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter and you’ll get a little more food for thought than your average political thriller film. The plot follows the suspicion and intrigue of a Secret Service Agent surrounding a UN interpreter after overhearing an assassination plan to kill a corrupt African head of state.

The film operates on a few levels, making overreaching claims of Silvia’s — the interpreter played by Nicole Kidman — faith in the UN as well as counterpointing this with the cruel and somewhat East German Stasi-esque world of her investigator/protector agent Tobin Keller — played by Sean Penn.

Yet, one level in particular seems to strike me and has been nagging at my synapses ever since: The Drowning Man Trial. Explained in a scene by Silvia, we discover:

Everyone who loses somebody wants revenge on someone, on God if they can’t find anyone else. But in Africa, in Matobo, the Ku believe that the only way to end grief is to save a life. If someone is murdered, a year of mourning ends with a ritual that we call the Drowning Man Trial. There’s an all-night party beside a river. At dawn, the killer is put in a boat. He’s taken out on the water and he’s dropped. He’s bound so that he can’t swim. The family of the dead then has to make a choice. They can let him drown or they can swim out and save him. The Ku believe that if the family lets the killer drown, they’ll have justice but spend the rest of their lives in mourning. But if they save him, if they admit that life isn’t always just… that very act can take away their sorrow.

This posits a remarkable thought experiment in my mind, and though I’m not advocating this as a new model for a justice system, I am trying to work my way through it. If we think about our own experiences of grief and then apply them to this situation in a personal way, we would all get a varied outcome of results – some of us would be more willing to exact vengeance whilst others would be more capable of showing mercy. Let’s consider this circumstance from two perspectives:

The Drowning Man

There is one glaring difficulty I have with this situation, however, having the option of saving a person’s life who has wronged you in this case seems to suggest that because he/she has wronged you that you no have superiority over his life, i.e. you are in a position to decide his fate simply as a result of his previous actions against a third party (your relative). In my mind, this represents a more ‘eye for an eye’ approach to balancing human interaction and goes against a basic fundamental of justice; that nobody is above the law, and hence nobody can outright determine the future life of another without wilful consultation with our peers — i.e. a jury.

In short, the drowning man has of course committed a ‘crime’ or an act of unredeemable action. Yet, this does not place him in a position of judgement from the berthed. So what should his situation be? We’re faced with a dichotomy of choice in this example; either the murder lives or dies. It is either black or white, not grey.

I can only think that if someone expresses honest regret — which is near impossible to determine — at their, say murderous, past actions then they should be showed some leniency, say life. If though I cast my mind to the other side of the spectrum, and that a crime is committed in a cold inhuman way, then the first instinct is to reciprocate that action upon the perpetrator, so say death. And so, this reflects the dichotomy expressed in the Drowning Man Trial.

However, just as it is wrong for the criminal to be placed at the will of those he/she wronged, it is also wrong to think in terms of such extremes; black or white. The Drowning Man Trial is flawed in a way that it offers only the two extremes, the man is either going to live or die. They will either resume their position in life, and thus be exonerated of their actions, or will meet the same fate as their victim. Therefore, I can only feel a natural repulsion to this system; it gives a dictatorship of justice to the most incapable and biased as well as forces us into adopting a position or either free life or cruel death.

The ‘Drowning in Sorrow’ Family

Considering it from the families’ point of view though is the real interest in this thought. Obviously, with any family death a long — perhaps never ending — period of remorse and grief exists. Emotions here then are the key to understanding this perspective.

What would a family feel? It is important to note who this situation only takes place after one year. The passage of time is said to heal all wounds, yet having the ‘trial’ on such a date of significance, i.e. the one year anniversary also raises some implications. Is the renewed sense of loss on such a poignant day likely to raise the sense of remorse? Or is it a reflection of a significant amount of time having passed in order to allow the family’s grieving state to at least become somewhat lessened, making a wiser decision possible?

From studies done, we know that emotions can have a powerful influence in decision making. One that looks at decision making immediate after the loss of a loved one in relation to organ donation underlines the importance for time and care in the consideration process. So the idea of having one year to pass indeed makes sense.

Yet, painful emotions are stubborn things; they linger, they stay raw, they ultimately resist the effects of time. The family in this instance, as far as I can boil it down, have only choices of emotions now. Three in fact:

  • Firstly, they can choose grief whereby they act out of vengeance and extract their ‘pound of flesh‘ as it were from their abuser.
  • Secondly, they can act out of compassion in which they save the murder and allow perhaps a perceived injustice to pass, choosing instead to forgive the past transgressions, for the actions of the past cannot be revoked.
  • Thirdly, and I think this applies to both outcomes, they will deal with guilt. One of the most powerful emotions in decision making, that will come from either having saved their wrong-doer and thereby ignoring or even reducing the tragedy of their lost family member. Or having chosen death, it will more clearly come from their actions of having taken a life — ‘blood on their hands’ if you will. 

In all cases the emotions of the situation determine or in part inform the decision making process of the family. This I can only think is a dangerous a precarious situation to be in, least of all for the man being bound and pushed off a boat. It drives home to me then the need for having people divorced from the emotions and dynamics of the previous act, for only them it is possible to consider the black, white, and most importantly, the grey of the available possibilities. In these cases then, an placing ourselves as onlookers to this sorrowful situation, I think most of us would never opt for the black, but neither the white.

Life is full of many colours; some of them will be black, but some will be white, but overall it is never one or the other.


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