Amollo: American notions of justice unknown to foreign countries


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The American idea of freedom is not universal and students should remember this when traveling abroad.

Benson Amollo

Not guilty!

That was the happy ending to the trans-Atlantic trial of Amanda Knox, a 24-year-old former Washington University student who was facing up to 26 years behind bars in Italy on charges of the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, a visiting student from Britain.

The Monday decision by the Italian appellate court jury of eight, which included two judges, delivered their verdict after more than 11 hours of deliberations. The decision overruled the December 2009 ruling that convicted Knox to 26 years in prison and her co-defendant, Raffaele Sollecito, a former boyfriend, to 25 years in prison for the 2007 stabbing murder of the 21-year-old Kercher, a Briton who shared an apartment with Knox. The earlier conviction by the lower Italian court was subject to DNA evidence that the defense later dismissed as thin and lacking credibility.

As Knox returned home to an emotional welcome that waits in Seattle, she will be met by a gawking media keen to frame the events and a Hollywood hungry for a movie. Her legal battle is a classic — a benchmark that sets in motion new lessons and a re-evaluation of how-not-to-act while in a foreign country.

Amanda, unlike her European tabloid portrayal, was not some sex pest or a sex tourist gone berserk. No. This was an honor student at a reputable American college on a global experience; a semester abroad that the American higher learning curriculum emphasizes. Her predicament therefore must say something to not only students at higher institutions of learning and to their respective administrations, but to every American keen on traveling abroad to gain international experience.

The fact that the Italian wheels of justice could not rest its hands on enough culpability to keep Amanda behind bars is welcome news to this young woman’s sympathizers, but should be reason enough to be more guarded and careful while living abroad. One of the things that young Americans and schools must emphasize is that the American idea of freedom is not universal.

Most places in Europe, Africa and Asia have their idea of freedom joined at the hip with a culture that directs the moral conscience in those countries. Thus, what passes for normal and acceptable on the streets of Ames, Iowa, or Wounded Knee, S.D., could be a thorny issue in, say, Nairobi, Kenya.

The American sense of exceptionalism has a way of playing a part in almost everything that Americans are involved in. In her naivety, Amanda thought she was “cool” and ready to grab the Italian streets by the lapel. After all, she was American — and of course, from Seattle. She must have thought that there was no learning to cool her heels for in the Italian city that America didn’t offer her. So to her, like many young Americans, she could summon in her own ways the needed courage to brave the Italian night-life and social circles unguarded.

Typically, most students traveling abroad on a mission, internship or an academic semester are in their late teens or early 20s and are most likely traveling out of the country for the first time. Therefore, this whole new experience is phenomenal both in the cultural conception of the new places, the idea of the new people, new friendships and social life. And so the American reality would most likely be a parallel in as far as a typical 24-hour day operates in those capitals, small towns or villages.

Adjusting to life in a foreign land is not easy. However, it is always helpful to, prior to moving to such a place, try to understand what the culture is like. This way, one is sure to not enlarge or minimize our extravagant expectations of a new experience. In so doing, the illusions that would flood our experience of a place are thus in good check as to help keep unwarranted trouble like those of Amanda’s at bay. And schools can help the prospective students with this kind of preparation before they partake in such trips.

Every street has its rules. And every casino has a king. It is always amazing to be introduced to new things; from Italian cappuccino, to Kenyan nyama choma, and a world of pasta beyond the limits of spaghetti. Food, people, life, romance, accent; it all springs different. It always comes with a culture shock that needs an unassuming attitude and a readiness to accepting new things. And especially for a cosmopolitan U.S. national, world capitals should not strike a wide difference.

The most important thing is to be ready and prepared to play by the country’s rules because that is what every other place expects of people —even those domiciled there. Students must up their ante before trips abroad to save themselves the embarrassing outcomes of ill preparations prior to boarding that plane.