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Raffique Shah


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A people problem of epidemic proportions

By Raffique Shah
January 06, 2008

I am not surprised that the Express has taken the initiative to intervene in the fight against the crime tsunami that threatens to destroy our beloved country. It's not the first time that a call has been made for a government to declare a limited state of emergency to help deal with the problem. A few years ago, a government-appointed committee headed by Ken Gordon and including some very experienced and knowledgeable persons, made a similar recommendation as part of a "package" of measures it proposed. Other organisations and individuals, your humble scribe among them, also suggested as much.

No right-thinking person or organisation would call for such a draconian imposition unless a feeling of helplessness, not to add hopelessness, engulfs them.

For those of us who have lived through emergencies in 1970 and 1990 we know the perils of the arbitrary powers of arrest and detention it places in the hands of the security forces, and by extension, the Government. Its abuse can be used to settle political scores and allow lawless lawmen (yes, you read right) to make citizens' lives hell, much the way the criminals now do. So when people, and institutions like the Express, see salvation in the suspension of their constitutional rights, it's a cry of utter desperation.

The Government has repeatedly rejected the emergency option on two bases. Firstly, it claims that its law enforcement agencies are capable of delivering us from all evil. This assurance has been given, repeatedly I should add, over the past three or four years. Instead of seeing a return to the paradise this country once was, citizens have been subjected to a rapid descent into what can only be described as Dante's Hell. Our crime fighters have failed to stem the bloodletting. Instead, the criminals are the ones in control. And between these two forces that are not necessarily exclusive to each other, we the citizens have already lost many of our rights.

Let's not mince matters here. Robberies are more daring, committed in broad daylight in crowded shopping districts. Gunmen are "taking out" their victims in the presence of witnesses, even pausing to perform the coup de grace, such is their confidence they would not be caught. To compound the plight of the besieged masses, most police stations are "closed for business" at nightfall, as one senior citizen learned, much to his dismay. I was in the military for six years, and I don't know of one army camp anywhere in the world that has closing hours.

With the Police Service in such disarray, almost like a battered army in hasty retreat, people have imposed curfews on themselves, at times in entire communities. We can no longer enjoy the outdoors at any hour we choose, normally a year-round benefit for those who live in the tropics, and something for which tourists from colder climes pay big bucks to enjoy. This brings me to Government's second reason for not wanting to use emergency powers to deal with crime. It would scare investors and visitors, causing us to lose much revenue, they argue.

Crap, I say. Already, big foreign corporations that operate here spend huge sums of money on private security for their senior executives, their offices, and in the case of oil and gas, at their installations.

Private security, which in many instances amounts to no security, is now a billion-dollar business. Add to that the high-crime warnings many governments in countries where tourists come from, or whose corporations do business in Trinidad and Tobago, have permanently posted on websites. We are right there in the "dangerous" rankings with Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and a few other crazy countries.

Shame of shames, in New York last year there were fewer than 500 murders to our 400. That's a city with almost ten times our population. And bet your Yankee dollar the police there would have brought to justice at least 50 per cent of the perpetrators. Here, 90 per cent of those who commit heinous crimes are never caught. Of the few who are charged, 90 per cent walk free. That brings us to an almost zero-level conviction rate. Only the very foolish in the criminal world end up doing time.

Having outlined the negative impact crime has had on the country, I hasten to add that if the UNC were in power we would have had to add to the criminal pool, not expect solutions. As prime minister, Basdeo Panday all but gave up when he temporarily took on the National Security portfolio. Given the composition of its upper ranks, the UNC's anti-crime creed must be set-a-thief-to-catch-a-thief. In fact, the opposition party can easily straddle both sides of the crime fence. If the guilty among them had consciences, they'd never open their mouths-except to beg God for forgiveness.

In calling for emergency measures, the Express and others need to understand that ours is not merely a crime problem. Lawlessness in this country is a people problem of epidemic proportions. We all need to look into the mirror before we don our combat gear. More on this subject next week.

Part II | Part III