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Raffique Shah


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Only the people can free the people

January 07, 2007
By Raffique Shah

I don't know that Bernard Kerik or Scotland Yard officers can help us out of the crime mess that we have created and in which we are close to drowning. This cesspool is so typically Trinidadian, we cannot expect foreigners to begin to understand how we plunged into the pit. It's true that many countries have their own crime problems that make us look relatively good. But one cannot compare the anarchy in Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere in Brazil, or high crime in parts of India or South Africa, with ours. These are countries with huge populations and land masses we can only imagine. We are a two-by-two country with a ten-by-ten crime problem that defies imagination.

Kerik is correct when he says that "zero tolerance" is the goal we should aim at. Having "acceptable" levels of murders or robberies or kidnappings are just not .well, acceptable. I hope, though, Kerik thinks in the same vein when it comes to poverty and unemployment. In other words, while governments see five per cent unemployment as being "full employment", that is not only unacceptable, but objectionable. So we need to apply these standards across the board. Martin Joseph takes comfort in the fact that we did not chalk up 400 murders in 2006, and that kidnappings for ransom dropped from the previous year's high.

In "pounding" the minister, I must admit I agree with his charge that many business persons brought about their own problems by using men with criminal records to help them recover debts. Everyone in the know was aware of this, none more so than those who had to face thugs breaking down their doors or beating them savagely or even kidnapping their loved ones as they brutally collected debts. But there is another side to this story.

Many of those who were owed resorted to strong-arm measures because of the uncaring attitude of the police in matters like these, and the maze that passes for judicial recourse. But everyone faces these inadequacies-from people whose aural senses are battered mercilessly by inconsiderate neighbours to those who must face "road hogs" at every corner, in every lane.

If those of us who are victims of such primitiveness resort to strong-arm solutions, the entire society will revert to one in which the law of the jungle rules supreme. But even as a few pay dearly for their sins of the past, there can be no excuse for the reign of terror that has enveloped the country. A security guard, clearly not properly trained, is gunned down in early morning as he attempts to save his charge from being robbed. Vindra Naipaul is held hostage for more than three weeks under God knows what conditions, and others are snatched to add bargaining chips. An amiable Bert Allette is shot dead while he is chatting with a female friend.

The reason I argue foreign experts will be of little help to us is that the underlying causes are uniquely Trinidadian. In Allette's case, his colleagues alluded to his integrity being behind his murder: in other words, he was battling corruption in Government programmes like the URP. This is nothing new, gangsters controlling make-work programmes. Criminals have thrived on URP largesse under every government, UNC included. Can Kerik understand this? And where would he start making arrests-among the politicians who spawned the problem or the gangsters who are their deadly pawns?

What of the loot that robbers relieve peaceful, often hard-working but poor people of on a daily basis? The bandits may put the money to their own use. But where does the gold end up? Or appliances like stereo sets, expensive cellphones and computers? Has anyone ever met a thief who had all these items stored in his house, privately enjoying them? Clearly they end up in the possession of supposedly upstanding citizens. They get a steal of a deal, quite literally, without even a passing thought for the victim who may have suffered severely, not only by the loss. These are the people who are fuelling the crime spiral, but who are also quick to cry out for someone to do something about the criminals.

This is where we Trinidadians and Tobagonians can make a start and put a serious dent in crime. If we refuse to collaborate with the criminals, refuse to buy their loot, that's one small step in a long journey to recovery. If we see jumping queues as anti-social behaviour, reckless driving as criminal action, and consideration for our neighbours or fellow citizens as being civil, then we shall be several steps closer to dealing with lawlessness and crime. We cannot, however, behave like boors and then point fingers at murderers and bandits. We must recognise when we become part of the problem, and quietly resolve to become part of the solution.

Unless we all adopt a fresh approach to solving crime, a citizens' fight back, we are doomed to drown in our own mess. Martin Joseph can't help us. Kerik and Scotland Yard can't. Only the people can free the people.