Crime is the issue that pervades the consciousness of Trinidad and Tobago. It is the ubiquitous topic that occupies the forefront of current life. Apart from the daily shock of the horrific acts of violence being committed in our country, the inevitable discussion is about what can be done to control and stop crime? This is no easy question and, sadly, history has shown that we have failed spectacularly in all of our efforts to do so. Addressing crime requires a certain level of sobriety and the willingness to acknowledge hard facts and truths. Until we start from a rational and realistic place, we cannot hope to get a handle on the current crime situation.
The obvious starting point would be to define what is crime. This is not a definition based on legal statutes, but rather a social definition. At present, we are defining crime along two inaccurate and explosive lines. Firstly, there is the definition of crime as a "thing", crime is something that exists and is "evil". It is a social force and needs to be dealt with. This definition in some ways is right, but in the most crucial sense is flawed.
Crime is not something that exists without context. Crime cannot exist without people and, ultimately, a mix of social and personal forces leads to crime. Thus this definition seeks to move responsibility away from perpetrators and portray crime as an endemic social force which, while true, does not automatically lead to the violence and death that we are witnessing at present.
The second and more worrying definition of crime is that crime is the domain of a certain people, a certain citizen and thus is the concern of the "other". This definition places crime squarely on the shoulders of others and serves to propagate divisions, hatred and unconcern in some cases. This definition of crime is no stranger to us and has placed itself at the centre of most current thinking about crime. The current understanding is that crime is always or most times linked to gangs, drugs and guns. Crime is also seen to be the domain of the poor, the weak and wretched and social "pests".
By employing these adjectives, the Government, the police, the media and the average citizen place the problem of crime into the realm of others. Crime is seen as something that does not affect everyone and is only for a certain type of people. Crime is seen as something that is serving a good purpose, as all the "right" people are killing each other. This definition breeds the dualism of the good and the bad, and the deserving and the innocent. Apart from the obvious flaws with this definition, what it does is legitimise crime, as it is seen as serving a good purpose. But, very often, the innocent pay a heavy price.
The further damage that this definition causes is that it gives a free pass to other heinous crimes, to those of the races not seen as criminals to pursue unscrupulous activity and it leads to the targeted stigmatisation and discrimination of those regarded as "bad" or "criminal prone".
Both of the above definitions place crime as a force and a thing. In one instance, it is a natural force; in the other, it is the purview of a certain type of person. Both lead to crime plans that seek to tackle crime as a thing. Crime is regarded as out there, something that can be cornered and stopped and something which we can place under control. To date, all of the attempts made by the numerous regimes that governed our island have done nothing to dent the crime problem and, as the years passed, it has been exacerbated.
A more useful way of thinking about crime is to regard crime as an idea. What I mean here is to treat crime as not only a thing or a force, but also as a social institution or worldview. Crime in Trinidad and Tobago did not spring up overnight, but the brutality and incidence have definitely increased. Leaving aside the incidence of crime even in the most utopian societies we are left with the question of why there is such violence in our country.
Crime and criminal activity have become normalised in the lives of the youths who engage in it. The same way brushing one's teeth in the morning has been "socialised" into most people, in some instances crime has become a socialising force. There are numerous ethnographies relating to crime and violence as a social element. In the ghettos of New York and the favelas of Brazil, crime, violence, drugs, rape, gangs, etc, are all components of masculinity and what it means to be part of those societies. Studies of male violence and its subsequent effects abound, but these are not being employed by our current regime and Police Service.
Thinking about crime as an idea and a worldview requires in-depth police work and psychological training. Understanding the world of these youths is a project not for the faint of heart. In the minds of these young men and women, death, rape and violence are normal and natural. The boy who finds a young girl attractive has no qualms about raping her, even if she is as young as ten, as this is what is "normal" and what he has witnessed all his life. The youth who wants a nice shoe is entitled to gun down another, as it is the way of their world. These are not sensationalised anecdotes, but actual instances of criminal activity. If we don't get insight into this reality, we can never deal with crime.
Next week: Can we beat crime? Part II.
• Rajiv Gopie won the President's Medal in 2006
for business/modern studies. He is an MSc
candidate in international relations at the
London School of Economics.