When two men pulled over in their home state of Assam in northeastern India, their intention was to ask some locals for directions. They were lost, and needed help finding their way.
But they didn’t receive help. They never received directions, and they weren’t permitted to leave.
Abijeet Nath, a digital artist, and Nilotpal Das, an audio engineer, were beaten to death that day by an angry mob convinced that these unfamiliar men had come to their neighborhood to kidnap children for nefarious purposes. Their deaths bring the tally of unjustified homicides in India related to unsubstantiated, vague rumors of impending child kidnapping plots spread across WhatsApp in recent months to nine.
The hysteria has germinated as a video, purporting to show a child being abducted, spreads throughout India’s most popular social messaging platform. In no uncertain terms, an accompanying text message warns recipients that child kidnappers will be arriving in their region, and to remain vigilant. Local media outlets have even picked up the story, further spreading the rumors.
Besides the message being intentionally vague – it doesn’t specify which state kidnappers are targeting, only that it’s your state – there is another critical flaw in this supposed PSA; the video itself isn’t from India at all, and it was initially created as part of an awareness campaign to combat child kidnappings.
‘But the video is not real. It's not even from India. An unedited version of the video shows it is a child safety film from Pakistan, designed to create awareness. The last segment of the video, which shows one of the men holding up a sign that explains the incident, has been edited out in the version being spread on WhatsApp.’ (BBC News)
Like any internet rumor whose velocity of sharing increases exponentially, police have found themselves at a loss when contemplating how to debunk what is, without a doubt, an intentionally misleading narrative aimed at creating hysteria proven to have tragic ends. Even if there was a way to scrub the video and accompanying text from social platforms, you can’t prove or disprove one’s intention to kidnap a child, and that uncertainty – the seed of doubt having been planted by the initial rumor – will continue to cause parents and vigilantes to assume the worst.
The psychology of rumor-spreading makes it even more likely that this fear – children being kidnapped and potentially raped and murdered – will precipitate more mob-led killings. Consider that rumors are spread when a) the information is important, b) people feel anxiety about the topic the rumor addresses and c) there’s general uncertainty about the truth of the rumor.
All three of those factors apply in the case of the Indian child kidnapping rumors. And, the first two factors are indicators that, in a tragically ironic way, the mobs who have blood on their hands are not single-mindedly mean-spirited. They are hasty, excessive, and prone to violence, to be sure, but their underlying motive – keeping children safe from those they believe to be kidnappers – is not in itself ignoble.
The situation brings to mind the most disturbingly truthful quotes of our time, and a couple in particular.
“Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.” –T.S. Eliot
Samuel Johnson opined that the path to ‘hell is paved with good intentions’. Both Johnson and Eliot had a keen understanding of the fact that facets of human nature that appear to be among our best – the instinct to protect others, for one – can be the most pernicious weapons used against us.
They can be, and have been, used as vehicles to elicit and expose the darkest corners of humanity. The reality that even people’s best qualities can be used as easily-manipulated levers whose end result is the murder of innocents is frightening, and it is a fact that is proven time and again throughout history.
The power of humans’ need to protect the weakest in society, children, is so powerful that it can cause them to stomp to death a person they truly know nothing about. All they need to “know”, or believe, is that this person was planning on hurting children, potentially their children.
Even if they were told this by a nameless, faceless entity via a message containing no specifics that would justify genuine concern, the inkling that a child may be in danger can compel some to resort to murder. India is the latest grisly reminder of humans’ deep-rooted corruptibility, and the unrivaled ability for children’s’ welfare, of all things, to expose our capabilities toward savagery.
In May alone, these crimes were committed, each linked to the WhatsApp video:
- A 55-year old woman in Tamil Nadu is lynched for giving sweets to children; police arrest 30 people
- A man in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh is lynched for speaking Hindi and not the local language, Telugu
- A man in neighbouring Telengana is killed by a mob while entering a mango orchard at night
- Another man in Telengana is lynched when visiting a village to see his relatives
- A man in the southern city of Bangalore, who had moved there recently, is tied up with rope and beaten to death with cricket bats
- A transgender woman is lynched in Hyderabad.
Even the most well-intended mobs’ mentalities, when engaged, are no prisoner to logic, rationality, or compassion. Even as somebody edges towards the brink of death, the instinct to protect children overrides any tinge of empathy for human life.
“A video of the attack went viral over the weekend, where one of the men can be seen pleading for his life.” (BBC News)
The mob did not let the pleading stop them. That man was murdered.
The deaths of individuals like Nath and Das are frightening, to be sure. But even more fearsome is the reality that this method – fear that appeals to our most noble instincts – is a sure-fire way to bait humans into all forms of malevolence. Wars can be launched, societies can be torn apart, and generations can be fundamentally altered and even destroyed through appeals to our kindest inclinations. It’s a perverse reality that typifies the extent of humanity’s flawed nature.
The students who could be seen protesting the murders of Nath and Das on the Sunday after their killings could never see themselves taking part in mob violence must really think. It’s unthinkable, they’d certainly contest.
But, if those same students received a more specific tip of kidnapping and the target was their own child, would they be so certain of their aversion to violence?
What would they resort to, what would they be willing to do, if their child’s safety and innocence were on the line?