Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Of crime and politics


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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 It was always on the agenda of course but had been, for a while, superseded in terms of its immediacy by other issues.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. So we are now to make firearms and drug possession non-bailable offences. The Police Service, according to the chairman of the Police Service Commission, needs a comprehensive overhaul. And the Flying Squad flies again, only this time cloaked in apparent invisibility.

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 People's National Movement administration, the launch of Project 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 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.

Each of us also has the responsibility not only to live our lives in such a way as to set an example for correct conduct and the propagation of the values of respect for all, but we also must be prepared to give of our time, our energies and our resources in any effort to wean our youth away from crime to lives of dignity and self-respect.

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 taught that would enable them to support themselves. 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, 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. The 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 column: "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 among 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."

Four years later I see no cogent reason to change a single word in that prescription. There is no other choice. But for it to happen we must take the toxic partisan politics out of the equation. No government, of whatever party, is going to make those difficult decisions on its own and open itself up to the vilification of its opponents. And without such difficult decisions, we will not solve our crime problem. It is as simple as that.

And who knows, maybe, if we can raise the level of our politics in seeking to deal with crime, we may just learn how to raise the level of our politics generally.

Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator

on politics and society in Trinidad

and the wider Caribbean.