May 08, 2005
By Raffique Shah
PRIME MINISTER Patrick Manning needs to understand that the butt-as in gun-butt-stops with him. For every life that is snuffed out by a bullet, be it an 18-year-old who is killed while horsing around with a gun-toting 16-year-old, or a teenaged "gangster" from behind-the-bridge brought down in a hail of gunfire, ultimately, blame lies with the country's leader, the Prime Minister. Manning may deem this an unfair burden for him to bear: he may correctly point out that it's the police who must deal with crime. In real life, though, more so in politics and in war, leadership carries with it some very heavy burdens. And real leaders must be prepared either to bite the bullet, quite literally in the case of our crime-ridden country, or step down from office.
I sense that the PM does not truly understand the gravity of the crime situation. If he did, he would relieve Martin Joseph from the National Security portfolio, hand over finance to any junior minister (that ministry is virtually run from and by the Central Bank), strap on his holsters and other combat gear, and ride into the crime dens of the country to show who is the real boss. No amount of rhetoric from a platform-we shall flog them, we shall hunt them down-will suffice. Nothing short of dynamic, frontline leadership will work to stem this tsunami that threatens to drown us all, the innocent and the guilty.
Let me explain to the PM why he needs to take crash courses in combat and go out there in the field with guns blazing. Like most members of the society, he and his Cabinet colleagues focus only on the daily fare of murders and weekly kidnappings. Even the media have stopped reporting incidents of robbery, rape, larceny, car theft and other "minor" crimes. Minor my foot! In the space of two weeks two friends of mine had their vehicles stolen, one from the sanctum of his home, the other from a military establishment in Port of Spain. Multiply that by ten, twenty, and you get a better picture of just how rampant car stealing continues to be, how people of ordinary circumstances suffer at the hands of both the thieves and their well-placed "fences" who buy the stolen vehicles to "recycle" them.
Robberies, from petty gun-to-your-neck "stick-ups" on the street or other public places, to bandits breaking down people's doors and terrorising hapless families as they steal the victims' valuables, are so commonplace, the police fail to even record such incidents. In fact, because people know how futile it is, they don't bother to call the police, or worse, go to stations to be treated like criminals. Women, young girls, are raped almost at will and again, few reports are lodged with the police.
These latter victims might even, in the process of being raped, be condemned to death as well, since the perpetrators may be HIV-positive. And "minor" incidents of violence-against-the-person hardly get past the neighbourhoods in which they occur.
What the picture I have painted above tells us is that the society is fast becoming inured to crime. This is a frightening situation. Criminals know they can get away with almost anything, that less than 10 per cent of them will be arrested and charged, that less than two per cent will be convicted and sentenced, so they have free rein. And the Trinidad of today, unlike its communities of yesteryear, does not have that communal spirit, the will to fight back, that was once a hallmark of most blocks or villages or districts. In places like Charlieville, Caroni, Debe, Penal, Laventille, St James, to name a few, time was when one would not dare steal a goat, far less break into a house. The entire community would join and beat the culprits to pulp before the police could intervene-to save the perpetrator from "people justice".
Now that murders have stolen the spotlight and kidnappers are having a field day, other crimes are of little consequence, however traumatic or devastating they may be to the victims. The Prime Minister must take his head from the clouds, plant his feet on the ground, and understand the realities of a crime-ridden society that is on the brink of chaos.
Minister Joseph comes on television to repeat what he has often said in his defence: the vast majority of crime takes place within the confines of five or six or whatever number of precincts. Bull, Martin! Those are police statistics. Those are not real figures of crime. If Joseph really wants to get the real picture, he will have to visit every community in the country, since none is immune from the forces of darkness.
Which is why the "General", meaning the PM, must come forth and show his true mettle. He cannot, as leader of the country, steer from behind. He cannot sit in his secure office, or his even more secure home, listen to weekly "intelligence" briefings and reports of "inroads" made, then make the occasional pronouncement, and expect that crime will be curtailed. I can tell him now that those "intelligence" briefs are also "bull". Because if the various intelligence agencies were indeed working, by now all gang leaders and members, all kidnappers, all robbers, would have been either rounded up and incarcerated, or lying dead under six feet of dirt.
While I accept the fact that ours is not the only country that is crime-ridden, that there are many more sophisticated countries that face similar or worse problems than ours, that is no excuse for dereliction of duty. This is a relatively small country. Most people in the society are good citizens. The bad and the ugly are few. So ours is not an intractable problem. What we need to restore some normalcy, to bring back the security people once knew in this tropical paradise, are a few good men (and women) who have the guts, the determination, to go out there and take on the undesirable elements. They 'ent bad .they only feel they bad. In fact, if you ask me, I'd say they have a "bad feeling".
When the dotish criminal points a gun at you, he feels like a warlord. When he sees a muzzle-flash in his vision, he messes his pants before he falls dead or wounded. But we have few people of such mettle in the society. If a country is at war-which is what this fight against the crime-tide boils down to-it expects its leader to rise to its defence. This is why Manning must lead the battle-from the front.