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Go beyond the soldiers

By Theodore Lewis

Jack Warner's notion that members of the Defence Force should be precepted and given police powers is an elegant solution in that it addresses two problems simultaneously (a) how to engage our soldiers meaningfully on a day to day basis, and (b) how to augment the ranks of the police in the battle against crime. The first of these two problems is one that the society has never really addressed as the decades since independence have rolled by. A standing Defence Force was a part of the protocol of independence.

As Dana Seetahal points out, its purpose was to defend against foreign attack on the country. We have not had such an attack in the 50 years since Independence. There was a dispute with Barbados over fishing rights, but we seriously cannot contemplate engaging a Caribbean neighbour militarily. When Eugenia Charles of Dominica tried to get Prime Minister Chambers to commit our soldiers to a joint Caribbean military force for an invasion of Grenada after Maurice Bishop was ousted, he declined. We had no history of so engaging our troops.

The time has come for us to think of the Defence Force holistically, that is as one cohesive force inclusive of police, soldiers and sailors with capability spanning defence of our borders and waters, as well as making our streets safe from criminals. Some decades ago this idea was adopted in sports, and we ceased to have separate police and army football teams, instead, fielding a Defence Force team. That model can now apply operationally.

There are many advantages to having a joint force. The obvious one is that the number of forces in the fight against crime is significantly augmented. One of our problems on the crime front is that there are not enough police to conduct sustained community policing. A second one is that the Defence Force is better trained for operations that require functioning in areas of difficult terrain such as forests and hills. A third one is that vigilance on the coast line is greatly aided by operations where soldiers police and sailors combine.

The involvement of the Defence Force and Coast Guard in civil policing on a sustained basis is superior by far to a position where forces are for the most part on standby. When soldiers are kept away from civic action, isolated on their base, this leads to alienation. It is far better to have them engaged in the day to day lives of citizens.

But to say that the merger of our forces is overdue is not to say that the problem of crime would thereby be solved. Mr Warner has proposed a brilliant solution but he and the Government have not explained why it is that young men in particular geographic locales have for the last 15 years or so been killing each other. What is behind the killings? Warner has proposed a good solution, now comes the hard part of finding the problem. The best source of this is the numerous youth we now hold in prisons, some of them on death row, men who have been on the front lines of the gang wars. Missing from the discussion on crime is a theory of murderous crime in the country.

Without theory our joint forces will be shooting in the dark, as it were. A single case, which involved the intervention of the American FBI, broke open the wave of kidnappings that were once commonplace here. We need similar breakthroughs with respect to killings on ghetto corners. Family days such as one recently held for the people of Laventille can be useful if it means that members of the community who have critical information are willing to talk.

Until the authorities understand the root causes of crimes involving street murder, and by that I do not mean the usual socio-economic arguments, but rather the hard cold economic facts of the new slavery, where trinkets are shown to young ghetto brothers, in fancy blue jeans, who, armed with guns are willing to patrol territory in the wee hours of the morning, guarding the hills of Rich Plain and up Laventille as if their lives depended on it. And more often than not indeed they do forfeit their lives in a game they were probably too low down in the vicious economic food chain to understand fully. But at least for a short time they got to put on mean faces and to walk tall on streets at hours when the rest of us would only peep outside.

Yes let's bring in soldiers but we should know why. The Government must tell us why young black men are killing each other. They need to match the solution of soldiers with a credible theory of murderous crime.

* Theodore Lewis is Professor of Education at UWI, St Augustine

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