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A chance to break the entrenched culture of impunity

"A POSITION of eminence makes great men greater, and little men less." So said Jean de la Bruyere, the French essayist and moralist who lived between 1645 and 1696.

Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt (1858-1919), the 26th president of the United States, has been ranked by scholars as one of the greatest presidents of that country. But he, according to his Supreme Court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, possessed only "a second-class intellect". What made him great, Wendell would say, was his "first-class temperament", one that his sister described as "righteous ruthlessness".

Teddy Roosevelt was hailed as the "usher of the new era in the black community". He once wrote to a friend that, considering the difficult issues of race and race relations, "the only wise and honourable and Christian things to do is to treat each black man and each white man strictly on his merits as a man". It was Teddy Roosevelt who coined the term "square deal", advocating practical equality of opportunity for all citizens, be they white or black.

It was no small feat for the leader of a country where racial hatred and tension was so high, and the lynching of blacks by whites was a routine occurrence. He was also credited with changing the nation's political system by placing the presidency at centre stage and making character as important as the issues.

And maybe the same character trait of "righteous ruthlessness" will be needed in our leadership to break our culture of impunity, long believed to be unbreakable.

The case of the assassination attempt on Sonthi Limthongkul - leader of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) - has been well covered. Conspiracy theories abound, the great majority of the public believing the mastermind(s) behind this assault on the nation's security milieu will never face justice.

There are several similar pieces of history that are hardly in the past.

Somchai Neelaphaijit, a human rights lawyer, was abducted in 2004, and five years on, the case remains open.

A whistle-blower policeman who exposed the crimes committed by his peers, who then left the police force to seek a quieter life as a farmer, was gunned down in broad daylight near his home. The case was never solved, and the perpetrators are still at large.

The many shootings and murders of innocent civilians in the South, that have fuelled ethnic tension in the region, remain largely unsettled. Since the crimes have not been legally established, justice is not being served.

The extrajudicial killings carried out systematically against drug traffickers a few years ago claimed the lives of thousands of alleged small-time dealers, but the kingpins have never been brought before the courts. And we forgave those who gave orders. Drugs are horrific, and those who deal in them are bad people - and so goes the mindset that the bad people should be taken out by all and any means, legal or illegal, legitimately or illegitimately. Two wrongs can make it right, so many of us think.

But two wrongs never make it right.

Thomas Hobbes called man "a wolf to man" (Homini Homo Lupus), as society needs the rule of law, and for people in society to respect and uphold laws as an effective means for their own protection, both individually and collectively. Regardless of who we are, we are equal before the law and all that it entails. Democracy will not be possible without the rule of law, and its effective enforcement.

That's why the attempted assassination of Sonthi will serve as a litmus test for the leadership of our prime minister. Police General Thanee Somboonsap deserves the highest public commendation for his honest, courageous and efficient handling of the case, which must be extremely difficult for him to manage. As such, he deserves the full support of the government and the public, as well as the full cooperation of all the relevant bureaucratic agencies. Pictures of the bullet-ridden car of the PAD leader have been seen in the press around the world. It makes it all the more important for the government to prove that Thailand is not another Darfur and that our legal system is not just a comic mistake.

The prime minister is in a political conundrum as far as this case goes. Those in the know, know who the culprits are, but few, if any at all, dare to think that political courage will prevail over political expediency. Public opinion has overwhelmingly concluded that this will be another "rigged boxing match" where the outcome will be, or has been, fixed.

A culture of impunity and the equally gripping culture of corruption are not created overnight. But as bad as history can be, it's also possible to overcome. All it takes is the political courage of the man at the top to make a difference.

To be or not to be: that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous for     tune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them?

Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1.

This is his one chance.

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