Saturday, February 24, 2018

Dana’s death


Mark Fraser

 When the killer or killers murdered Dana Seetahal last Sunday, they did not only kill someone’s aunt, or colleague, or mentor, or friend, or sister. They also killed a voice in the wilderness that is Trinidad.

I’m not saying that this was the killer’s intent. It is both absurd and egotistical to infer, as some educated commentators have been suggesting, that the hit was to silence “independent voices”. Criminals don’t care what intellectuals think, because intellectuals don’t have any influence on politicians, multi-millionaires or politicians who become multi-millionaires.  Why should they, when intellectual argument doesn’t even influence people who claim to be intellectuals?

It is also erroneous, though more understandable, to mourn Dana’s death as a loss to the law. Yes, she was one of the country’s leading attorneys, but there are plenty other lawyers who will continue to do whatever she did in the legal sphere. There is not, however, any lawyer who will step in to educate the public on legal matters through a newspaper column. And that is where Dana’s true importance lay.

Dana and I interacted mainly because we wrote columns. I had cause to badtalk her a few times over the years—once when I criticised all the independent senators who stayed in the Upper House during the 18-18 deadlock collecting money while no sittings could be held, and again for her support of the death penalty. At that time, we had never met and, when we eventually did at a panel discussion where she was a participant and I a reporter, she told me hello afterwards and, in a group conversation, laughed about “giving Kevin an excuse to criticise me”.

Thereafter we spoke occasionally on the phone. When she wrote a column I considered especially good, I would send her an e-mail saying so and, when she wrote a column which had wrong information or a suspect perspective, I would send her an e-mail saying so. (The latter would mostly happen if she ventured outside her field of law and into social psychology.) Most of the time, she would call me back to chat, proving she was not above speaking to peewats.

On those occasions where I would tell her about some research I had read, she would listen and question but I never had the impression she accepted my argument—at best, perhaps, she would suspend judgment. That is not to say that Dana always stuck to her opinions, for she would later modify, though not abandon, her stance on capital punishment (not because of anything I wrote, though).

In matters of law, however, Dana was supremely confident in her own views, which of course was a quite justified attitude given her knowledge and accomplishments. Once, when some constitutional issue arose, I phoned her to get her take and, in our discussion, I made the mistake of starting a sentence with the words, “But the Constitution says – ”.

“I know what the Constitution says!” she immediately snapped, so I boiled down like bhagi and listened to her expound.

Law is often a matter of interpretation, however, which is why on any given matter four lawyers may give four opinions, and those opinions often seem to depend on who’s paying for them. I don’t think Dana was entirely immune to such bias, which may be why the last column she wrote—on the letter from former solicitor general Eleanor Donaldson-Honeywell alleging wrong-doing in the Office of the Attorney General—was weak. 

More often, however, in her newspaper column and in the Senate, Dana’s legal knowledge was invaluable for public education, as when in 2006, out of the entire bench of Independent senators, she was the only one who objected to being placed by the President out of the purview of the Integrity Commission, because only she knew that the President had no such authority.

By writing on such matters, Dana short-circuited a lot of stupid talk, or at least made propagandists have to work harder to fool citizens. Save perhaps for ego, there was no reason for her to give what was essentially free legal advice—indeed, given the petty minds of politicians and other powerful people, she probably lost money doing so (and, in a society like ours, wealth is the only real ego-booster). Which is not to say that Dana wasn’t a wealthy woman, anyway, but wealth clearly doesn’t lend either courage or independence to people in this place.

I never spoke to her about her background, but I had the impression from personal details she sometimes mentioned in her column that she did not come from privilege. Instead, she seemed to have been genetically lucky—she was bright enough to get into a prestige school, where she learned karate and played chess and, as an adult, ran marathons. 

This is the superior person Trinidad has lost; and, with her death, both mediocrity and savagery have become a little more ensconced.