All the World's a Crime Scene
About two years ago, a few friends and I traveled to Namibia to go on safari. We arrived in Windhoek, the capital, and checked in at Hotel Heinitzberg, which looked more like a castle than a hotel. As soon as I received access to Wi-Fi, I remember researching the historical relationship between Namibia and Germany, which colonized what was then known as South West Africa in 1884. Two decades later, the Herero and the Namaqua people revolted against German colonialism. The fighting lasted three years. In response, German government officials called for the extinction of these native people. Soon after, German occupiers killed half of the Namaqua population and eighty percent of the Herero—a total of 75,000 people—in what has been recognized as the first genocide of the twentieth century. I could not help but wonder if this hotel—which I learned was originally a castle commissioned by a wealthy German man in 1914—ever welcomed any of the occupiers who took part in killing those people. Although Germany officially apologized for the genocide in 2004, for the remainder of the trip, German statues and street names made my surroundings seem like a big crime scene.
But what constitutes a crime scene? I admit that the plays, films, and television series have constructed much of what I think when I hear or read the term crime scene. One might picture yellow tape, gloved investigators, a weapon, a cracked safe, a bloody floor, etc.; however, a crime scene can be any place where a criminal offense occurred, and forensic evidence could be collected and used to charge someone for performing that offense.
What this metaphor highlights the most about the world is that evidence capable of helping us come closer to understanding reality exist all around us. For example, the metaphor shows us that every public school operating before Brown vs. Board of Education is a part of a national crime scene. Of course, one reason the metaphor rings true is because many actions most of us would consider to be crimes today were legal for a large part of history. However, I think another reason is because the state tends to distract from the crime scenes they have left behind, even if they remain in plain sight. Today, more than sixty years after this monumental Supreme Court case, school segregation is still alive and well. The state may have been tried and convicted, but behind a new mask it continues to commit similar crimes in the same places.
Though I would never consider myself a police investigator, I aspire to the archetype of fictional detective Hercule Poirot, who through astute observation and awareness reveals inconsistencies and problems in a seemingly perfect picture. Like Poirot, I serve as an investigator, but instead of solving murder mysteries, I strive to interrogate historical trauma, which is often glossed over in order to maintain the current hegemony. History is a logbook of crimes and the world is a map of overlapping crime scenes.
On the same trip, we also visited Robben Island in Cape Town, South Africa. There, our tour guide made sure to show and tell us about the part of the penitentiary where political prisoners of the Apartheid-era were interred. I presume this is because when apartheid was abolished and deemed illegal, political prisoners became victims, their cells became crime scenes, and the state turned into a criminal. However, upon returning to the pier, I also realized that the city which had operated blissfully for decades had also retroactively turned into a crime scene, and the state was once again the criminal. As I pondered on this, a woman selling helicopter tours convinced me to look at the crime scene from a couple thousand feet in the air. Hovering above the city, I saw evidence of segregation and inequality: on one side there were huge mansions and swimming pools, on the other side there were shantytowns and pools of burning trash. Clearly, the state had failed to rebuild and restructure the social order, and instead, had chosen to continually perpetuate economic and racial disparity by sweeping it under the rug and using the idolatry of Nelson Mandela as a distraction.
Crime scenes are just below the surface of our everyday lives, and the evidence is there for each of us to discover, if we take the time. Each of us can act as an investigator. Some of us have access to better tools than others. Either way, when a capable investigator gives up on searching for evidence, they become complicit. In effect, they become an accessory to the crime by normalizing the evidence of the crime scene, helping to hide it in plain sight.