Citizen Detectives: On Online World of Investigations
Inside the world of crime fiction, a story starts with a murder.
Nothing has changed since ancient days that people murdered one another.
What has changed is how modern society investigates a murder. While the ancients incorporated the supernatural or other irrational into their explanation of a murder, it was the Enlightenment that enshrined reason, logic, and scientific proofs as the basis for detection.
Wikipedia picks up the Enlightenment cognitive thread from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which was used to create the modern detective narrative with “all of the central characteristics and formal elements of the detective story, including a mystery surrounding a murder, a closed circle of suspects, and the gradual uncovering of a hidden past.”
Four hundred years later, building upon the thought processes constructed by the Enlightenment, technology has provided a wide range of detective tools. Just as important as the tools are the accessibility to such tools has passed from the hands of government officials and professional investigators and into the hands of intelligent, interested, and knowledgeable amateurs.
There is great political power in maintaining a monopoly over the narrative flow that detects and solves crimes in general and murder in particular. An essential part of the social contract between citizens and their government is the trust that the government’s narrative is truthful. When a government lies about a murder or a disappearance, they close the door to truth. In times of civil unrest, street protest and demonstrations, the intensity of emotional rage threatens to return us to the pre-Enlightenment era where gossip, speculation, the supernatural, biases, and radical beliefs evolve narratives to solve the mystery surround a murder.
Our ancestors consumed a diet rich in official narratives slanted to suit the interest of the powerful. The tension between power and authority and truth and justice is the rope pull contest, which in the past the authorities, with police, armies and guns, mostly won.
In 2014, in circumstances of political turmoil, we are going to see far more citizens going over the head of government officials, investigative experts, and mob leaders who are less interested in solving a murder than spinning a narrative that advances their interest.
Thailand’s political troubles has produced murder victim in 1976, 1992, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2013. The probabilities are there will be more murder victims in 2014 arising from the political activities in Bangkok streets and upcountry venues where demonstrations occur. It is human nature that both sides will blame the other for a murder. Whether the victim was one of their own or on the opposite side, the standard trope is the other side pulled the trigger.
Though in Thailand, the tradition of both sides blaming a ‘third hand’ is popular. A third hand is an anonymous player, usually in a tight band or group, with powerful friends and allies and seeks to gain advantage through violence. In Thailand in recent times they are called ‘the Black Shirts.’ The murky third hand, dressed in their black shirts, plays the role of the supernatural in the ancient narratives. It is anti-Enlightenment, anti-evidential, secretive phantoms, who like all characters in a good ghost or superhero/villain stories appears, on the surface, a convenient and plausible explanation.
The third hand is also a good excuse for the authorities to limit their investigation or to sidetrack it on a wild goose chase for the elusive third hand. Like a supernatural story the third hand player acts as a wonderful piece of distraction. After a while people, forget about the person who was murdered as everyone is baying for the third hand to be revealed.
The house of cards is about to fall.
There are several reasons for this kind of stonewalling and distraction to become increasingly more difficult to work in the near term.
First, the visual evidence is often overwhelming, graphic, and damning. The video evidence is from a rainforest of CCTV cameras ringing every street and alley, government and private, and the hand-held devices everyone carries. With the emergence of drone technology, you can expect another layer of visual surveillance to capture the moment a murder is committed.
You’ve likely seen on YouTube and elsewhere citizen video footage uploaded from the scenes of demonstrations from around the world. Political acts of violence are also on the increase. This increase correlates with the rise of video images of acts of political violence. A case in point, was the horrific murder and beheading of an off-duty solider in the streets of London.
In the case of the murder of Lee Rigby, a British soldier, in London concern has been raised as to whether showing the video footage will mix hatred and disgust into the volatile cocktail of moral rage. There is no little irony that the most advanced products of our technology are causing a pre-Enlightenment irrational emotional reaction to the images captured and displayed in a courtroom.
It isn’t just the jury or those inside the courtroom that responses emotionally to visual acts of graphic violence, the ripple effect swiftly flows through the larger community. After the Rigby murder there was a surge of anti-Muslim hate crimes in England.
Second, official deniability is curtailed with visual records that suddenly go viral, and in minutes people around the world are seeing with their own eyes an act of violence. The jury is no longer confined to a courtroom. The jury is now in the millions and it is convened twenty-four hours a day. There are many YouTube videos showing abuse of power of authorities.
On New Year’s Day the Bangkok Post reported along with a video of a policeman slapping a Russian tourist across the face leaves little room for the old standby: this was a misunderstanding. Constable Nop was swatting a mosquito when the Russian woman rushed in front of the insect at the last moment to rescue it from death. This doesn’t do much for the official version of welcoming tourists to enjoy Thailand, and no doubt damage control will spring into action. Someone will be dispatched to give the Russian woman flowers, a basket of cookies, and free tickets to the crocodile farm. She might want to think twice about using the latter.
Third, is the emergence of online Sherlock Holmes who gathers and analyzes the forensic evidence that can be acquire by searching Google Maps, having a knowledge of firearms and ammunition, and eye witness accounts from the ground. If you have a reasonable level of online research skills you can apply those skills to a murder.
A good example of such an online investigation that asks the question: Who shot and killed the Thai policeman on 26th December 2013 near Gate 3 of the Japanese Stadium at Din Daeng. Anti-Government protesters were at the stadium to block and disrupt registration of political parties for the 2nd February elections. Those on the side of the protestors pointed the finger at the government as the killer, saying the fatal shot came from the top of a government building.
The Philip Marlowe who conducted the murder investigation explains his motivation for the investigation:
“I write this not to answer wider questions about the rights and wrongs but to try to clarify a narrower question of whether a policeman was killed by mysterious gunmen stationed on top of the Labour Ministry, which is – obviously – under the control of the government. The protesters claim that these men were most likely hired by Thaksin to shoot both protesters and police alike in order to paint the protesters as violent. To my knowledge, the government have yet to clarify who these men were, but have accused two protesters of firing down at police from nearby flats.” (The police have confirmed that the men in black on top of the Labour Ministry building were policemen.)
In the fog of street demonstrations and violence there are bound to be multiple perspectives and not everyone will agree that the evidence presented support the conclusion offered. Some media and citizen reporters reported, for example, that black-clad men were on top of the Labour Ministry, and that police attacked a protester’s vehicle smashing the windows. In the heat of street battles, the lines shift, the roles of attacker and victim shift causing confusion. Emerging from the confusion are conflicting reports.
Our online Philip Marlowe provides a detailed investigation into the gunman’s location, the height from which the shot was made and distance from the shooter to the spot where Pol Senior Sgt. Major Narong Pitisit was killed. Our online investigator presents his case to us, the jury, to decide whether given the trajectory of the entry and exist wound, the position of the body, the reports of the direction of other gunfire at the same time, that the killer, whoever he or she was, had not fired the shot from the top of the Labour Ministry.
The chaos of violence in a street demonstration makes detection of a precise killer more difficult. With multiple gunmen firing shots from various locations, and masses of people in and around the turmoil, it is often easier to conclude who couldn’t have fired a fatal shot than to pinpoint the actual gunman.
The private citizen investigation into the murder of the police officer Narong by using informational online resources has shaped a credible scenario that eliminates the rooftop of the Labour Ministry as the location of the gunman. Because something is credible and plausible doesn’t mean it is true or the final word. But it does put pressure on the authorities to either confirm or repudiate the scenario from the evidence they’ve gathered. The result is the creation of a new kind of courtroom for the digital age. Courtrooms and judges, prosecutors, police and witnesses are evolving into something new. Like the monopoly of information, the monopoly of justice is being disrupted by new technology.
The fourth reason for the house of cards to fall is that worldwide millions of people are aware that political, economic and social life is being disrupted. These hugely powerful institutions appear fragile, vulnerable and weak. Like high-rise buildings following a powerful earthquake, the question is whether they can be repaired before they collapse. The elites with the most to lose take to the streets to demand governing systems that leave them in control. They wage conflict against those they fear will demolish what has given them identity, privilege, wealth, status and power. Murders committed inside this landscape have significance as the identity of the gunmen effect the legitimacy and credibility of the government and the anti-government forces. Each side wants the other side to have pulled the trigger.
The citizen detective, armed with investigative skills, is entering a hotly contested political realm where murder is the collateral damage of that conflict. Or it may be that murder is part of the theatre of the absurd to discredit and topple the opposition. In other words, pinpointing the killer is driven less about the truth of the murder as to the political fallout from arresting a person associated with one of the political sides. Political killings appear on the surface to be like all crimes of passion. The reality is a cold-blooded calculation is made about the merits of violence to achieve political ends. That is the classic definition of war.
We head forward with new and powerful tools of detection, and with skilled and dedicated online detectives, but none of this changes the fundamentally irrational nature of man. We are predictable in our capacity for unpredictability, driven by deep-seated forces of language, culture, indoctrination, and biases. The reality of our lives, is when the house of cards falls; there is no evidence modern technology will do much to reduce murders in the political arena, or to detect the killers. Lee Rigby’s killers knew they were being filmed. They performed the gruesome murder in front the camera.
What is happening in the streets of Bangkok are mirror in many places around the world as 2014 witnesses a continuation of a battle waged between those allied with pre-Enlightenment forces who are pushing back hard against forces of the Enlightenment. The anti-democratic movement wants the benefit of all the technological advantages which have emerged from the Enlightenment while maintaining a medieval political structure and a belief system that sidetracks science to the margins. It is an old war that flares up in intensity as the technology accelerates social and economic change.
What is it about that philosophy of the Enlightenment that ignites the flames of politic conflict? The answer takes us back to David Hume, who famously wrote “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Our blood lust and self-interest have traditionally trumped appeals to evidence and reason. The slave can’t be allowed to use evidence and reason to control the master. As a result we are left with moral outrage and when the elites lead a mob to jump the fence of reason, we return to a pre-Enlightenment political era. We will have to look into a deeper future before this flaw in the human software can be patched. Only then will the slave have a chance for genuine freedom. Meanwhile, we will look to the citizen detective to bring images and voice to the slave’s case. 2014 may give birth to the online Spartacus who adopts the tools of the Enlightenment to break the chains of enslavement.