Treat the crime epidemic like the disease it is

Treat the crime epidemic like the disease it is


Wednesday, February 05, 2014

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Humans have an amazing ability to eventually understand and eradicate problems that threaten our survival. Had it not been so, the species would have long ago gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Consider the devastating pandemic given the name the Black Plague, which wreaked havoc in the 14th century — killing an estimated 60 per cent of Europe's population and reducing the world population from an estimated 450 million to 350 million. It took 150 years for the population to recover in Europe, where the disease reoccurred occasionally until the 19th century. It was not until the late 19th century that the pioneering work of the likes of Louis Pasteur, and the development and improvement of microscopes, led to the discovery that disease is caused by microbes too small to be detected with the naked human eyes. This gave birth to the germ theory of disease.

Jamaica must adopt a new mental paradigm and go in search of effective measures to eradicate violent crime, specifically murder, from the society. The Government, the police, the private sector and civil society have stopped trying to eradicate the problem. We have grown comfortable with the worsening murder statistics reported by the police year after year. Our best efforts, what is referred to as crime control, are little more than an accommodation. At the recent highly successful Unite for Change: National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention put on by the Ministry of National Security, a leading epidemiologist, Dr Gary Slutkin, called on the Government to treat crime as if it were a disease.

One obvious benefit to taking such a radical approach is that it would impose a sense of urgency in addressing the problem. Imagine waking up tomorrow morning to the news that some strange and devastating virus had made landfall at Port Morant and is traveling across the island, leaving scores of people dead in its wake. This same lethargic Government of ours, which has not been able to put a dent in the crime problem since 1965 — over the period only three commissioners of police and one minister of national security have experienced a lower number of homicides in the year when they demitted office than when they started — would spring into action. The prime minister and leader of the Opposition would emerge from denial about the underlying causes and unite in the fight against the scourge. They would declare an emergency and offer to quarantine the constituencies they represent against spreading the disease to unaffected areas of the population. Resources would be mobilised locally, from the Diaspora, and the greater international community. Every necessary asset would be placed at the disposal of those leading the effort to contain and then eradicate the contagion.

The response from among the citizenry to the invading disease would be no less dramatic. Mothers would turn in sons, and wives their husbands who show the slightest sign of being infected. People living in inner-city communities would be jumping up and down in front of television cameras; only this time they would be clamouring for the authorities to come and remove the carriers of the contagion that make their communities unsafe. There would be wailing and gnashing of teeth, and far less "bling" with the carrying out of each coffin.

In Jamaica, we don't just have crime, we have a crime epidemic. I am no medical doctor, but common sense and high school biology tell me that the first step in controlling an epidemic is to understand the pathology of the underlying disease. Crime in Jamaica may look like crime everywhere, but it is markedly different in its genesis. For Jamaica, the advent of political garrisons marked the descent of the country into anarchistic behaviour. One can almost name the date and hour when the crime trajectory dramatically changed, and we can certainly name the protagonists who were engaged in the political tribalism — vestiges of which are still with us.

A contagious disease turns epidemic if the root causes are left untreated. The garrison phenomenon, once identifiable with a few inner-city communities, is spreading to infect all areas of Jamaica. It is as if the garrison is no longer a place but a state of mind, giving rise to antisocial behaviour that is uniquely Jamaican. Is there a vaccine — a countervailing action of sufficient magnitude -- capable of stopping the spread and sending the crime disease into remission?

Newton's First Law of Motion states: Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it. At the Unite for Change: National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, Member of Parliament for St. Andrew Eastern, Andre Hylton, provided what I deem to be that initial step that must be taken. In one of the workshops, the recently minted political representative boldly and unequivocally called for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to allow the political system to expunge itself of the corrupting influence of tribalism and regain the moral authority to lead the fight against crime.

In his call, which may not be popular with some segments of the political intelligentsia, Mr Hylton has solid support. In a Page 13 story captioned 'No truth, no trust — Study' suggests most Jamaicans want politicians to appear before a truth commission, the Sunday Observer, June 5, 2011 gave the results of a exploratory survey conducted by University of the West Indies lecturer and international expert on truth commissions, Dr Jermaine McCalpin. The main research question was: Would you support a call for a truth commission? The breakdown of the responses was as follows: 65% yes, 15% not sure, 10% no response, and 10% no.

The Unite for Change forum "is the implementation programme of the National Crime Prevention and Community Safety Strategy. The programme intends to mobilise the whole country — individuals, community based organisations, non-government organisations, faith-based organisations, private sector and Government — in a unified and coordinated approach around the shared goal of creating a more caring, gentle and safe society". The event, which attracted over 2,000 persons from every walk of life, if it achieves nothing else, proved that Jamaicans have not given up on rescuing their country and themselves from the strangle-hold of crime and violence. What is needed is the impetus for change.

If we approach fighting crime as if it were a deadly and contagious disease, we will find solving the problem is not beyond us. However, as with all human endeavours that could be said to be the moral equivalent of war, the battle must first begin and be won in the mind then in real life.

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