By Charles Kanjama
The erudite Wikipedia defines fire as the rapid oxidation of a material in the chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light and various reaction products.
The ancient Greeks considered fire as one of the four elements of all reality. Fire, the great servant and terrible master, was considered by many cultures as the element that most distinguished man from animals.
It was often linked with the emergence of mankind. In Greek mythology, the Titan Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals and with it a share of immortality. Some great scenes in literature have involved confrontation with fire. In JK Rowlingâs final Harry Potter book, a terrifying scene occurs in the Battle of Hogwarts when the villain Crabbe unleashes the Fiendfyre spell that destroys everything in its wake.
In JR Tolkienâs the Lord of the Rings, a dramatic battle takes place between the Wizard Gandalf and the beast of fire, the Balrog. In Jack Londonâs White Fang, two besieged travellers fend off unrelenting attacks from ravenous wolves, using fire-brands that gradually become ineffective.
And in Rudyard Kiplingâs enjoyable Jungle Book, the boy-wolf Mowgli keeps the entire wolf-pack at bay using fire, which his friend Bagheera the panther called âthe Red Flowerâ.
Kipling explained, "No creature in the jungle will call fire by its proper name. Every beast lives in deadly fear of it, and invents a hundred ways of describing it." Man alone can wield it, and with a fire-brand Mowgli conquered the jungle.
So last week I chose to wield a firebrand to keep out the wolves of political hypocrisy. I argued, "If the communities that were most affected by PEV are the strongest supporters of Uhuru and Rutoâs joint political strategy, who are the rest to shout âfire!â" This raised some disquiet.
Oliver Wendell Holmesâ opinion in the 1919 US Supreme Court case, Schenk v US, gave birth to the metaphor, âshouting fire in a crowded theatreâ. Holmes argued that the right to free speech had limitations, and it would not protect a man who falsely shouted fire in a theatre and caused a panic.
Ironically, the metaphor of falsely shouting âfireâ seemed to distort my argument. To some keen readers, I appeared to insinuate that if victims embrace their suspected aggressor, criminal law ceases to apply. This of course is contrary to the rule of law, which I claimed to champion. So I blame metaphor metastasis, a virulent form of metaphor mismatch.
To be honest, the disquiet went beyond the metaphor. One colleague argued, "Once we begin to categorise PEV into most affected communities and others, we will naturally proceed into âvictimâ, âaggressorâ and âcollateral damageâ communities (and imply) that it is the âvictimâ status that gives a community the right to shout âfireâ. This line of thinking is perilous to national cohesion. We are equal stakeholders. Everyone has an equal right to shout âfireâ to save Kenya."
The argument was that national cohesion requires us to drop the sociological approach of comparing suffering. Indeed, criminal law recognises that each crime is an injury against the entire society. We were all victims of PEV. So it is not prudent to talk of some communities, either in an ethnic or geographic sense, being âmost affectedâ compared to others. My response was, "Okay, I agree and concede the point."