This is a piece I wrote centred around some thoughts and feelings on crime. One of my long-term projects is a book about an ex-cop waging a one-man war against crime. With this piece, I tried to condense the one of the key ideas of that book into a short narrative. That being said, this piece has nothing to do with the book. Just something I tried out. Hope you enjoy, comments and feedback (both positive and negative) will be appreciated.
Common Criminals by Imran Lorgat
I will always remember that day. Maybe until I’m old or until I die; maybe even longer. I can still see the gun convulsing violently in his hand. I can still see it belch flame like the mouth of a demon. I can still hear that horrible, horrible sound; a roar that could crack the sky. But in the end, it’s not really the gun that I remember, I don’t even remember what colour it was. It’s what came after it. The longest year I ever lived. And it started on that day.
I was walking out from the Woolworths, heading to the parking lot. My iPod was blaring loudly in my ears. In my one hand I was carrying the groceries and in the other I was typing out a text message to my girl. At that moment, I couldn’t have been more detached from the world. And then I saw two men standing outside our car at the driver’s seat talking to my uncle. He was my dad’s uncle, but I always just called him ‘uncle’. Seeing those two hooded figures at the window made me feel uncomfortable. I turned the music off and took a step forward. And then I saw it. Gleaming in his hand, the cold glint of tempered steel; the gun. I heard them threaten my uncle, shove the weapon in his face. I remember his narrowed brow, that look of steely determination. I’d never seen such courage under pressure before that point; I’ve never seen it again.
“Get out of the car you old fart,” the thief threatened him in a thick accent.
“Fuck off,” my uncle told him. There was real venom in his words; he’d never bothered to mask his contempt for the common criminal.
“I’m going to count to three,” the thief barked at him, “And then if you don’t get out, I’m going to shoot you.” His voice was thick and heavy. He enunciated every word.
The other thief beside him just stood there, trying to appear hostile but not doing anything. People were watching. Watching but not doing anything either. Thinking back, I didn’t do anything but watch either. My uncle learned down into the door. I only realized later that he was grabbing something from under the seat.
“Three,” his attacker counted.
“Ok, ok,” my uncle replied, “I’ll get out. You can take the car.”
The would-be car thief looked at him with a bully’s grin, pleased with himself that he’d got what he wanted.
“Ok I’m getting out,” my uncle told him.
My uncle’s hand went to the door. He pulled the handle carefully and the door clicked open. And then, in an instant, he shoved the door forward with full force, jamming it into his attacker’s legs. The thief cried out and bent over forward. My uncle leapt from the car seat, and rammed his shoulder into the thief’s throat. The man stumbled back. And then my uncle was pointing a gun of his own at the thief, a look of such hatred and anger in his old face that it was physical, palpable.
It was the longest second in the longest year of my life. I can still see the gun convulsing in my uncle’s hand. I can still see it rattle and belch fire as the bullet exploded into the thief’s face. I can still see blood, bright burning red, and chunks of flesh scatter through the air as a roar so deafening fills my ears that I wonder if the sky has cracked. I can still see the man’s lifeless body fall to the ground at a hideous angle. His deformed half-face is too ugly to describe; just thinking about the exposed musculature and oozing brain fluid makes feel like I’m choking.
I remember what I did at that moment; I looked away. I saw the other thief run for his life. There was another bang, louder than the first and then he dropped to his floor, clutching his bleeding leg, crying out to my uncle for compassion and mercy. I remember what my uncle told me. He ignored the screaming of the crowd and turned to me, his awareness heightened, his chest heaving in and out heavily. When he spoke, his friends were frenzied, laced with adrenaline.
“What the hell are you looking at?” he shouted at me, “Stop standing there gawking like an idiot. Call the police!”
And so I did. I punched the numbers into my cellphone with trembling fingers and I told them that my uncle had just shot a robber and it was an emergency. When they arrived on the scene, they took my uncle away in handcuffs like a common criminal. For a long time it was all over the newspapers and the radio. I couldn’t get through a single day at school without finding someone staring at me or hearing whispers between groups of people that would disappear when I came close. The reporters kept hounding me and my family; they wouldn’t leave us alone or grant us any peace. My mum said that I should stay away from them and not say a word. My dad said they were just vultures looking for a good story. My parents put me into counselling. The councillor kept trying to relive that event with me and check if I was ok. I told the counsellor the same thing I told everyone else: that I was fine, that I was just dreadfully worried about my uncle.
Watching a man’s face get blown off was horrifying, but what really hurt me was what my family had to go through that year with my uncle’s trial. The court cases were long and dragged out. I remember sitting in the stands wearing a suit, twiddling my fingers for hours on end and feeling tense, knowing that any moment it could all go downhill. There was always such a long wait in between the hearings. And every time one ended, being told that we’d have to wait two months for the next one really beat us all down. It was difficult to live like that, constantly being left in the lurch. I remember wishing that I could do more. I told my parents that I wanted to testify, that I saw my uncle attack first and act to save his own life, but none of the adults wanted me to get involved; they said it just wasn’t my place. It didn’t stop me from bringing it up all the time.
My uncle spent that year under house arrest with an ankle monitor taped to his leg. We went to visit him every weekend. He stayed tough and didn’t say much, only that we shouldn’t feel sorry for him. My uncle was a constant symbol of courage that year and he didn’t show an inkling of surprise when the verdict was finally given. Maybe he had suspected it all along. The court had acquitted him of killing the first thief. They accepted that he had acted in self-defence. But the second thief, the one who he’d shot in the leg, was pressing charges against him for attempted murder. It didn’t matter that the man was a twice convicted felon for violent crime. It didn’t matter that he and his friend had tried to steal my uncle’s car with a gun. I kept hearing the thief’s lawyer mention ‘fair process’ but there was nothing ‘fair’ about way that case went.
In the end my uncle lost. He got a 25-year sentence in prison and that was that. After a year of fighting and watching my parents sit up late with my uncle and his lawyers it had all come to nothing. Injustice was done. I still think about it from time to time and wonder how the system could allow something so wrong. My uncle hadn’t chosen to be robbed. The only choice they had given him was to either give up his car or to fight back and defend himself; a choice between bad and worse. In my mind, he did the right thing. He fought back against evil men. He didn’t let them get away with it. Criminals would think twice about stealing cars if they knew that they could get killed trying to do so. All they really have to fear is that they might have to kill someone else instead.
That’s why whenever I hear the politicians on the news talk about how they’re doing everything they can to provide ‘solutions’ and ensure that justice is done I get sick to my stomach and switch off the TV. Crime is still bad in this country. It’s been bad for a very long time. And you can’t make it better by enforcing the law. Criminals don’t care about laws, you have to make them think twice; you have to make them scared. And that’s when I realized. You can’t stop crime by changing a few laws. Because laws are just rules. And you can’t fight criminals with rules because, by definition, they’re the ones that break them.