“No one is above the law, but no law is above basic decency, justice, and kindness.”
This sentence is one of the first things you will see on my Facebook profile, right below my profile photograph.
Today I want to share some thoughts about that quote, mostly in light of the recent tragedy in which 39 people were found dead in a refrigerated lorry in Essex, in the United Kingdom. I am not a professional lawyer, and I don’t claim to know everything about this issue. But I think some people need to reexamine their concept of “rule of law” and what it really means.
I do believe no one is, or at least no one should be, above the law. And this applies to everyone from presidents to illegal immigrants. It is true that illegal border crossing is a violation of the law. Staying and working in a country without proper legal documentation is also a violation of the law. Growing marijuana is a violation of the law in the UK. There is no question about that. And, if any persons violate the law, they should be tried in a fair and just manner, and if found guilty, should be punished accordingly.
That said, I completely agree that the 39 people who died in that lorry were violating British law as they illegally entered the country and had intended to stay and work there illegally, without paying taxes. Had they been alive and arrested by the authorities at the border or afterward, I would have completely agreed that they must be given a fair trial, and if found guilty of committing a crime, should have been convicted and punished according to UK immigration laws, which I assume to be deportation. If they had violated any other laws against the community where they intended to reside, they also should have been tried and punished in accordance with the law as mentioned above. It’s that simple. You break the law, you get punished by the law.
On the other hand, doing something legal isn’t always right, and doing something illegal is not always wrong. No law is above basic decency, justice, and kindness, that is my belief. And that extends to the way you treat people, even those who break the law.
Some people say that we shouldn’t have mercy or empathy for those who break or try to break the law. Some accuse these people of being “parasites”, “greedy” and “stupid”, who “disgrace” their own countries of origin in the eyes of the world. I’m not sure that those who work hard in another country to support their families at home can be described as “parasites”, “greedy”, “stupid”, or a “disgrace”. But I am certain the majority of people in the world do not see looking down on their less fortunate compatriots as a virtue or a source of pride. I think this shows a lack of basic decency and respect for other fellow human beings.
Some people say that the 39 people who died deserved their fate because they broke the law and had to pay the price, that they should’ve seen it coming. These 39 people, of course, would’ve broken several laws had they been successful in their (supposed) attempts. Are any of these laws punishable by death? Not that I know of. Do you think anyone who violates these laws should be given the death penalty? I don’t, and I’m fairly sure most people don’t either.
So how, exactly, did these people “deserve to die” for breaking those laws? How, exactly, did these people “deserve to die” for wanting to make more money even if they and their families were not that desperate? How, exactly, did these people “deserve to die” for not choosing the legal way to work overseas?
People who break the law deserve punishment in accordance with the law. But they don’t deserve to die, especially in that manner. It is not just.
Such responses demonstrate a lack of empathy and kindness that is, unfortunately, still quite common, not just in Vietnam, but also around the world, despite many efforts to promote the importance of empathy in our society. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand their rationale and feelings. We cannot be kind to others without having empathy, without being able to look beyond ourselves and focus instead on other people.
Understanding the context is an important first step in developing empathy and kindness. Context is integral at every step of the legal process, from lawmaking to handing judgments and punishments, and in the everyday assessment of any situation or person. Jumping to conclusions without considering all contextual information and imposing your own views onto the problem can be dangerous, as you will be focusing on the surface problem and blinded to other underlying issues. You won’t be able to understand fully and correctly either the whole picture itself or the people involved. That lack of understanding will lead to bad solutions that won’t solve problems, but which will likely make things even worse.
Most importantly, I believe kindness makes the world a better place. Don’t confuse being kind to be lenient. It is not mutually exclusive to hand out just judgments and punishments while at the same time trying to understand and treat people well to help them right their wrongs. That is what I believe to be restorative justice instead of retributive justice. I suggest we not focus on their shortcomings, but rather on how we, as a society, as a country, as humanity can help the victims’ families and prevent as many people as possible from suffering such tragedies ever again. That requires not cruelty and apathy, but a balance of rationality and empathy.
The rule of law doesn’t mean you must uphold the law over people without exception. It doesn’t mean people who break the law are bad and don’t deserve our mercy or respect. It doesn’t mean that we can just punish someone and be done with it. We need more than just the rule of law to run our society in a way that improves most if not all of us. We need to have basic human decency, justice, empathy, and kindness in dealing with each other.
This tragedy is a failure and a lesson for all of us Vietnamese as a society and as a country.