We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Justice France
They had lived next door to one another for years. Their children went to the same schools; the men worked in the same fields; everyone drank the same water, breathed the same air.
So what caused one neighbour to fall upon the other so savagely? Shoot dead the father and the sons in their own garden? Rape the mother and daughter in their own kitchen?
The world watched, horrified, as the people of what had been Yugoslavia tore their country, and themselves, to pieces in the early 1990s. The bleak lesson of those dreadful times is clear. When there is no possibility of being held to account for their actions, perfectly "normal", "decent" people become willing participants in the most horrendous crimes. Because they can. Because no-one will punish them for doing so.
Thinking about such things makes us uncomfortable. It makes us question the meaning of "normal" and "decent". It makes us wonder if those who speak about "original sin" might have a point. And if the veneer of civilisation might be no more substantial than a bloodstain - and just as easily wiped away.
It should make us value all the more the protocols of law and justice. But most of all it should make us acutely sensitive to the words and actions of those in authority over us. Because it is from these figures that the cues invariably come. Stark or subtle, it is their messages that prime us, alert us, incite us and reassure us that from some groups in society the protection of the law has been withdrawn; that they are now fair game: we can do what we like to them. No one will come to punish us. No one will be held to account.
And so, to Justice Simon France, we all owe a huge debt of gratitude. This week he placed himself athwart the road that leads to the death of accountability, social safety and personal liberty and said "No further!"
The New Zealand Police, or at least the Organised Financial Crime Authority of New Zealand (Ofcanz), had decided that for one particular group of citizens, in this case members of the Red Devils Motorcycle Club, the law could be broken with impunity. To convict men they had already adjudged guilty and considered enemies of all "normal" and "decent" people, Ofcanz officers believed it right and proper that the executive and judicial arms of the state should join forces. That secretly, and in conscious manipulation of the law, they should help a police undercover agent bring these enemies of the people (organised criminals! drug- dealers!) to "justice".
When I read about Justice France's decision to stay the prosecution of the Red Devils Motorcycle Club, and was then forced to listen to the outraged response of the Police Association's Greg O'Connor, I was reminded of the line spoken by the hero of the hit 1971 counter-culture movie, Billy Jack. Warned that the illegal actions of a wealthy rancher were sanctioned by the presence of a corrupt local deputy sheriff, Billy Jack says: "When policemen break the law, then there isn't any law - just a struggle for survival."
Why couldn't Greg O'Connor have said that? Why couldn't he have stood up for every honest police officer? Why wasn't he the first to say that such behaviour was unacceptable and that those responsible must be called to account? More importantly, why wasn't the Police Minister, Anne Tolley, willing to say it? Why wasn't the Prime Minister, John Key?
Our political leaders are supposed to be the guardians of our rights and liberties. They are supposed to understand and uphold the doctrine of the separation of powers. They are supposed to have sufficient grasp of basic ethical principles to know that "the end justifies the means" is always the first, irrevocable step down the road to perdition.
That they appear not to understand these responsibilities to their fellow citizens should make us feel uncomfortable - very uncomfortable. Their public statements - which can hardly be interpreted as anything other than a vote of confidence in the behaviour of the police officers whose actions were so roundly condemned by a senior member of the judiciary - are equally discomforting.
Because they are cues: not-so-subtle hints that this is the direction in which we can expect government policy to go. And in no time at all columnists and commentators of like mind were picking-up on their cues; expanding and amplifying their hints. Who are these judges? Why aren't they lending the police a hand, instead of protecting these criminals? Who cares about the rights of these "terrorists"? What about the rights of the "good people of Nelson"?
No doubt the "good people" of all those Yugoslav villages heard their leaders asking very similar questions.
Right before they butchered their neighbours.