So it was a known construction worker cum odd job man who killed senior Lankan journalist Mel Gunasekera.

The man, hunted down within the same day Mel was stabbed to death in her suburban home, was apparently familiar with the place and the family’s routine. When she recognised him, burglar had instantly turned killer.

Case closed? Prima facie, it seems so. But in a land where so many crimes are simply not solved and culprits never caught, some can’t believe this swift and efficient crime investigation. Public trust in institutions, once lost, is hard to regain.

Conspiracy theories won’t bring Mel back. Neither would heart-felt eulogies from her many friends and colleagues. But the latter helps the living: for those who knew and adored her to cope with grief.

Mel would have been bemused by the spontaneous expressions of appreciation that have been pouring out on social media. I can almost hear her say, “Aiyo, what a fuss – get a life, men!”

But life is precisely what has become worthless in our troubled land. Life today is so cheap it can be snapped away at the slightest provocation. Or even without any.

According to police, the killer stole just LKR 1,200 (USD 10) and her mobile phone. No other motive is suspected.

Any death is a tragedy, but what do we make of a killing done for small change and a piece of metal?

As mutual friend Rohan Samarajiva noted: “She should be writing my eulogy, not me hers. The young should not predecease the old. We should have built a country where a young journalist could take the bus with no fear and spend a Sunday morning in her own house without getting murdered. The war brutalized us. Killing became nothing.”

As young blogger and researcher Sharanya Sekaram asked in a tweet: “When we will change from being a nation of the dead and mourned to one of the alive and celebrated?”

Genie runs amok

I don’t think anyone has the answer. Or maybe everyone does.

By coincidence, on the very Sunday morning Mel was snatched away, I was reading Paulo Coelho’s 2011 novel Aleph and came across an unusual quote. It’s an idea the author heard from a man in Tunis: “In our culture, the criminal shares his guilt with everyone who allowed him to commit the crime. When a man is murdered, the one who sold him the weapon is also responsible before God.”

I’m more concerned about immediate culpability than any next-worldly liabilities. Perhaps that Tunisian wisdom applies to us here and now.

Aren’t we all contributors to the dreadful nightmare that has just consumed Mel? It has been nurtured by our indifference, denial (or worse) for decades.

This ‘genie’ is home-grown: a beastly manifestation of our own collective reptilian psyche. For years, it did our bidding. Many among us cheered it while others looked away. The few who questioned — or sounded caution — about brutalising an entire society were shouted down.

Now, nearly five years after the war ended, the big bad genie just won’t behave. It won’t get back in the bottle. It’s running amok, terrorising hapless citizens. Almost like a snake eating itself…

How do we protect ourselves from the phenomenon of our own making? Can we outrun our own shadows?

Fences or walls don’t help much. Elaborate home security systems can give us an illusion of safety. In any case, how many can afford gated and guarded communities? Do we want to live with 24/7 surveillance by private security and have ‘armed response’ — as done in affluent parts of South Africa?

No arrangement is fail-safe. As Samarajiva noted, “we built fortified houses that were death traps should the perimeters be breached.”

Has the breakdown of law and order in Sri Lanka reached such levels that we must now live in eternal fear inside our homes? Are we slowly joining the ranks of the perennially scared residents in sprawling metros like Johannesburg, Mexico City and Bangalore?

What next? Travel only in convoys at night, and start carrying small arms?

Cartoon by W R Wijesoma, circa 1992 - Development that leaves some people behind

Which way forward?

Surely, there must be another way. A bumpy and slow road that would probably be, but explore it we must.

Call it a path of healing, sharing and caring. Researchers might give it more lofty labels like ‘inclusive growth’, or ‘post-conflict transformation’. We can’t leave it to the government alone; individuals and community groups have to play a key role.

The metaphor of roads is apt because we have had a frenzy of road building since the war ended. Oh, we do need to fix the long neglected infrastructure: better roads not only enable movement of people and goods, but also spur entrepreneurship. We all gain.

Asphalt and concrete are necessary – but not sufficient. They need to be matched by ‘soft’ aspects such as social cohesion and social safety nets. So that no one gets left behind, or feeling too bitter…

Only by investing in collective human security can we hope to boost our personal security. This is not new idea; implementing it doesn’t need to burden the overstretched state either.

For example, Sri Lanka’s largest development organisation, the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement, has long advocated and practised a balanced approach to economic development. In thousands of villages across the island, they have engaged people to live by a slogan: “We build the road — and the road builds us!”

In its haste to rebuild and grow fast, is post-war Lanka forgetting these and other proven strategies? Can we afford to race ahead leaving many citizens to fend for themselves? What happens when pent-up anger and frustrations spill over or blow up?

I’m not suggesting a simplistic link between these macro trends and the private tragedy that snuffed out Mel’s life. But none of us can claim to be innocent victims.

In Tunisian wisdom, at least, we all share the responsibility for things that go wrong – and the obligation to put things right again.

This isn’t a call to charity, but an invocation of enlightened self interest. No one is immune or fully shielded from crime, pollution, disasters and epidemics.

In another century on the other side of the planet, pondering the imminent outbreak of the biggest of all wars, an Anglo-American poet wrote an evocative verse titled ‘September 1, 1939‘. It belied the helplessness of an individual against the forces of ultra-nationalism and tyranny.

I keep returning to Auden, who has captured our imperative so aptly:

“There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.”

[In fond memory of Mel Gunasekera (1973-2014): friend and journalist, a fellow traveller who cared.]

  • concernedcitizen

    This murder shouldn’t be the reason to start talking about social security, but that is a very good point. We should be doing more to lobby for better social security. It is probably the number 1 issue in Sri Lanka right now that affects the most number of people.

  • Holmung Pee

    Thanks Rohan, well written indeed. BTW, do we have any background of the apparent ‘burglar’ – eg. is he an army deserter etc. ?

  • Nawaz Dawood

    The twist to the storey you are trying to portray to this tragic event is disgusting. All over the world these events do happen, Sri Lanka is not the only one. In America, Canada and England we daily hear this type of senseless killings. How many Sri Lankans living abroad has god slain for stupidest reason. We may be able understand why this [edited out] man killed this woman in the future. At the mement the news is only this single person has killed her. Some suggesting records have not been kept, you have to check construction workers before employing them is not practical. How many people would empoy a reputed company for such work and pay accordingly. We know rich and poor both do not want to pay for these services. At this time we do not know and that should not apply to Ms Mel’s case.

  • Ruwan Rajapakse

    Calling a spade a
    backhoe – a comment on Nalaka Gunawardena’s analysis of Mel Gunasekera’s tragic

    There recently appeared in the mass media an article by one
    Nalaka Gunawardena, titled “Who really killed Mel Gunasekera?”1 I
    began to read with keen interest what I thought was a factual account of this
    sordid and deplorable crime. My interest rapidly turned into astonishment, to
    put it rather diplomatically, when I discovered that the writer was unashamedly
    leveraging a personal tragedy for political advantage.

    Let me begin by saying that the journalist (who is listed as
    a science writer on Wikipedia?2) seems wanting of evidence-based
    thinking. There isn’t a single shred of evidence brought forward in this
    article, to nullify the culpability of the prime suspect rounded up by the
    police3, who acted swiftly in this particular case. Apparently this
    tragic death is an opportunity for Mr. Gunawardena to dismiss empirical wisdom,
    because “in a land where so many crimes are simply not solved and culprits never
    caught, some can’t believe this swift and efficient crime investigation. Public
    trust in institutions, once lost, is hard to regain.” Let us for a moment
    indulge Mr. Gunawardena’s belief that the police are inefficient. So, when the
    police swiftly apprehend the suspected culprit, what must we do? We could come
    forward with evidence to the contrary, if we have any. Any sane and socially
    responsible person would. If we don’t have any such evidence, we could let the
    experts manage this case and have justice take its course. Or, like Mr.
    Gunawardena, we could go around forming opinion out of the thin air, to free a
    suspected killer (who incidentally was caught on CCTV and is reported to have
    confessed to this crime3). An astounding idea one must say.

    It’s not only the lack of evidence that is disturbing about
    his analysis. It is also the writer’s style. “Aren’t we all contributors to the
    dreadful nightmare that has just consumed Mel? It has been nurtured by our
    indifference, denial (or worse) for decades.” He says. Whom is he talking about
    here – the police, the good citizens down the lane (they did report hearing a
    scream and stepping out to investigate3), all Sri Lankans or the
    world at large? Mr. Gunawardena displays [edited out], when he proposes to blame society for this crime, sans
    any practical suggestion to prevent such crimes in future, and ensure justice is
    done the way he envisions it to be. We shall come back to such helpful measures

    Let us also take a stab at the abstruse generalisations that
    Mr. Gunawardena makes; they seem to lack any objective content. “But life is
    precisely what has become worthless in our troubled land. Life today is so
    cheap it can be snapped away at the slightest provocation. Or even without any.”
    Okey, so what is he trying to point out here? Is he, for example, saying that
    the per-capita homicide rate in Sri Lanka (3.6/100K pop)4,5,6 is
    higher than certain other countries? If so, which country is he talking about?
    Certainly not the United States (homicides 4.7/100K pop), so perhaps he is
    talking about a Scandinavian country like Sweden (1/100K pop)? Of course we are
    behind Sweden or even the UK in crime prevention – there are historical reasons
    for this, and we all can readily acknowledge that we are a developing country
    emerging from economic hardship and even social immaturity in some respects. The
    more important question is, what is the trend
    in crime over the past five decades, adjusted for population growth, urbanization,
    and excluding the homicides committed during the civil war? It may or may not
    be a rosy picture, but it would make useful reading. As compared with the sort
    of sweeping assertion that Mr. G makes, that either reeks of either terribly low
    self-esteem (the “we suck” mentality) or judgmentalism (“they suck”).

    This is an awful personal tragedy that may, as Mr. G rightly
    points out, force us to draw lessons for society at large. However these
    lessons should take the shape and form of awareness and prevention of crime through
    education and preparedness. They aught not to be a mindless trashing of our
    country’s socio-cultural fabric. Practical suggestions like allocating a
    precinct police officer, gearing the police to be receptive for consultation
    about assessing the background of casual hands, having a system for accrediting
    construction workers, training citizens how to recognize sociopathic
    personalities, TV programs to encourage empathy during childhood and
    adolescence, ethics to be taught as a subject at secondary school in an
    empirical and non-dogmatic fashion, and the tagging of known sociopathic
    characters by the police, are some measures that we could take. None of these
    can absolutely guarantee that homicides won’t take place, but they can at least
    lessen the crime rates.

    We all must care when something absolutely awful like this
    happens. Which is why we must react with our brains and well as our hearts, to
    make our homes safer places to be.