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Crime and crime again

By Michael Harris

Once again we are witness to a dramatic upsurge in crime. And once again we are witness to the familiar frenzied reactions. The Prime Minister summons the National Security Council (NSC) and reads the riot act. The Leader of the Opposition seizes the opportunity to boast that crime will bring down the Government and, for good measure, blames the Prime Minister and the Attorney General for the upsurge in crime. And once again civic groups and citizens in general are quoted as weeping, wailing and gnashing their teeth.
The fact is however that we have been here many times before. This current spike in crime may give us a quantitatively higher trend but qualitatively, it is no more or less horrendous or horrific than what happened early last year when we were all appalled by the image of a severed head “liming” on a table outside a bar in La Romaine.
On that occasion I wrote an article in this space entitled “Of crime and politics”. What I wrote then is as relevant and as pertinent today as it was when written and as it has been for many years now. So I make no apologies for reproducing today much of what I wrote just about one year ago.

“The issue of crime has once again catapulted itself to the top of the national agenda. It was always on the agenda of course but had been, for a while, superseded in terms of its immediacy by other issues. Now it has come roaring back on the wings of a spate of murders over the last two weeks headlined, if you will, by the absolute horror of the severed head left casually on a tabletop outside a bar in La Romaine, for all to gaze upon.
And, as has happened before, there is a sudden flurry of activity from the Government and solemn statements from Government spokespersons and other stakeholders about new initiatives to be undertaken and new strategies to be pursued to fight the scourge…
Whatever the solutions and strategies being advocated in the wake of this most recent upsurge in crime, it is important that we remind ourselves that the problem of crime and the manifest inability to deal effectively with it did not just surface with this Government.
We would recall, under the last PNM administration the launch of Operation Anaconda by then minister of national security Howard Chin Lee. All “Anaconda” did was to swallow its own creator. He was followed by the hapless Martin Joseph whose only strategy for solving crime seemed to be talking it to death.
We remind ourselves of the failed initiatives of the last administration, even as we note the failed initiatives of this administration, because in so doing we might just come to the realisation that the problem of crime in our country is larger than any particular government, any minister of national security and any political party. The problem of crime is a national one and can only be addressed by national initiatives.
But what does that statement mean? At one level it means that crime is not simply about gangs and guns and drugs and murders. The roots of such phenomena, as frightening as they might be, are to be found in ill-conceived and irresponsible policies perpetrated for a long time now in the economy, in education, in housing and in social and community development. As long as we do not fix these fundamental, national issues we shall, with each generation, keep breeding new recruits into lives of crime.

So the solution is national because it requires, in part, long-term national economic and social initiatives. It is, however, also national because it cannot rely only on governments or the police or the army. While these institutions are expected to give the lead in the fight against crime, that fight is also the fight of every law-abiding citizen in the country…
In this regard one major solution which has been advocated before and which I fully support is a National Service programme, operated under the aegis of the army, which would take our endangered youth from all over the country and place them in an environment in which discipline would be inculcated and skills that would enable them to support themselves taught. Those of us with such skills must be prepared to give freely of our time to help teach and train our young men and women.
But in the final analysis, while such long-term and medium-term policies and strategies are vitally necessary the fact remains that we must also deal with the immediate problems of guns and gangs and murders. It is here most above all that the fight against crime must be a national one.
Absolutely the first step in making it so is that the issue of crime must cease to be a matter of partisan political bickering and gamesmanship. Our politicians must cease trying to score points against the other party when it comes to crime. That gets us nowhere. Government and Opposition should agree that crime as a matter of gamesmanship is off the table. In this respect a National Crime Policy Board, inclusive of Government, Opposition and civil society members, should be established and be responsible for devising and reviewing all the initiatives in terms of the fight against guns and gangs and murders.
Such a National Board is necessary because the fight against crime on the streets is going to demand difficult and unpalatable choices. More than four years ago I wrote the following in this space: ‘To deal effectively with this crime situation, at least in its short-term perspectives, we shall have to make unholy alliances with some of the criminals, we shall have to forgive the vicious and heinous crimes of others of them, we shall have to pay and protect many of them, we shall have to grant amnesty to a whole lot of them, and yes, we shall end up killing a good many of them’.”

That is what I wrote last year and I repeat it again this year because the issue of crime has not changed significantly over the course of the last year or, indeed, for many years now.
There is however one change which we need to take note of. Both the acting Commissioner of Police and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Port of Spain, in statements given very early in the New Year, had much to say about the rising anger in the society.
But the anger which they have observed is not confined to the underprivileged youth or to the criminal elements alone. Law-abiding citizens of every race and class and region are also becoming increasingly fed-up and increasingly angry. This should have us all very concerned. Time as I have said before, grows short.

—Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and
commentator on politics and society in Trinidad
and the wider Caribbean.
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