The murder of Dana Seetahal is shocking beyond words, but we as a society should have seen this kind of depravity coming. The murders have been incessant, with ever-increasing degrees of boldness. We had the highjacking of an armoured car on a highway. A security guard was left dead on the highway as the bandits made their escape. We have heard nothing about this since. We have had people being burnt and left in rubbish dumps. Daily bodies are being found, on the side of highways, in the forests, on the streets of the city, in swamps, in addition to the old standby of the culvert in Laventille. Last week we had a murder almost on the steps of the court house in Arima, this time the apparent shooter running out of luck, apprehended at the scene. It has been a free-for-all here, and the criminal surely must believe that he can up the ante now, perhaps just for the challenge, just to show who is boss in this town, who is running the place, and seeing the society as a collective on the ropes.
We can speculate as much as we want as to what was the motive for Dana’s killing. But to me that would be academic. We have long passed the time here when murders had motives. Usually someone kills out of passion, or out of hate, or because of some untoward psychological propensity. And that is how it used to be in the old days here. The murderers of old functioned out of logics that were understandable if intolerable. Today murder is a recreation, a reflex, something that men do just for the spurious honour that comes with the act. There is no need for motive. A man looks at your girlfriend. Mark him for death. He steps on your shoe in the fete. Should he not be dead?
This is not a time to blame anybody. There is no society that relies solely on the police to stem murder. The instinct to kill is a primitive one that is curbed by education and by social/civic convention. In civil society what suppresses murder is voluntary restraint. People on their own have to work out that murder is a taboo, a sign that a person has come to the end of his capacity to be reasonable. Murder moves the individual away from the zone we normally view as human. The act of murder places the murderer in a zone beyond human-ness. It is a threshold of no return. In places where crime is low the reason is not that there are police on every corner, it is that people have been socialised to push the prospect of murder to the furthest reaches of their being. Murder in such societies represents human failure, the blowing of a fuse, one that is calibrated in such a way that the act is as rare as could be. The murder rate in any society is a function of that society’s civility.
But in our society, taking a life has become a routine. Murder has become more a social than a psychological act. We are all familiar by now with the commonplace lexicon of murder, to be heard in calypso, or routinely in street corner ole talk. So “shot call”. Or a man was “put in place” to be killed. Men are hunted and killed no different from the way quail or rabbits are taken in a mid-western prairie bush. A man comes up your street and you don’t know him. That is cause to take his life. The driver of a car becomes lost and ends up in your community. He ends up dead, on the principle of wrong place, wrong time.
Each society has a tipping point beyond which it cannot cope with crimes as they are committed. We may be nearing this point. The criminals are testing the waters. They did so before with a crime that was dramatically bold, the shooting around the Savannah of the vehicle carrying Zalayhar Hassanali, wife of the then president Noor Hassanali. The murder of Dana Seetahal will test our resolve. The key to solving it, and to bringing the country back from the tipping point beyond which chaos and lawlessness become our norm, is to close nationalistic ranks and joining in the fight against criminals.
The first thing I did when I heard that Dana Seetahal had been murdered was to call Barbara Grazette-Skerrit, a Trinidadian doctor with a practice in Minneapolis. It was a call of anguish. When Dana came to Minnesota a decade ago to take up her Fulbright at the University of Minnesota, she sought to make connections with Trinis on the campus. She knew that I was teaching there, and contacted me. I obliged by introducing her to the Caribbean posse. We had a little fete for her at my home that included some home food. We cherished her. She revelled in her prowess at making sada roti. One of her first requests was to be taken to the mall to buy sneakers for long distance running. She was to be seen on the campus pavement pounding out the miles. Dana proved to be quite down to earth. I was impressed that in the middle of a career that was already set, and with a profile that was already quite high, she would take time out for study. This was someone out of the ordinary.
While I have not always agreed with her point of view, I have been impressed by the easy way in which she could distill ideas for mass consumption without being condescending and without watering down the content.
Dana Seetahal clearly was among T&T’s legal luminaries. She brought a deceptive kind of ordinary persona to her work, giving interviews in the matter-of-fact way that she did. This was a gifted, creative woman—a committed citizen.
What are we as a society now going to do about this situation? Do we have the resolve and the intelligence to know what course of action to take to bring the perpetrators to justice? What this murder provokes in me is anger. We should all be angry at this. It has to be solved.
• Theodore Lewis is professor emeritus, University of Minnesota. He has returned home and is mostly retired.