Military rule, crime, and our democracy

Everton Pryce

Sunday, June 16, 2019

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The supporting role of the military in the fight against the ugly spread of hard-core crime and violence, particularly in perceived volatile communities across Jamaica, is increasing, and most Jamaicans appear in favour of this trend.

As a reflection of the deepening subterranean societal conflict between the forces of law and order, and disorder and indiscipline, this is a serious and most dangerous development. It underscores the extent to which Jamaica House, up to now, has proven itself powerless in bringing the crisis of the wanton spread of crime and violence under systematic control as it pursues the noble objective of economic prosperity for all. In fact, the Government appears to be doing damage to its credit.

Some 55.3 per cent of the population, we were told in a survey one year ago on people's attitude to democracy and governance, if given the chance, would give the men and women in military uniform stationed at Up Park Camp full support to seize power in rescuing — paradoxically — “one of the happiest places” on planet Earth from the coercive impediment of fearless, wanton, hard-core criminal gunmen and violence-producers. And these purveyors of death and human destruction, many believe, are aided and abetted, not infrequently, by corrupt or myopic civilian politicians. Unsurprisingly, this outlook has deepened, notwithstanding our recent improved status in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).


Out of control

To make matters worse, there is a yawning deficit between expectations and reality that casts doubt, on this score, on the managerial and leadership capability of the State (Government and Opposition) to tame the beast of crime and violence 57 years in Independence. The glaring evidence suggests that the ideological chasm between the State and strategic civil society groups and organisations about what defines a credible crime plan, and the most efficient use of state of emergency (SOE) and zones of special operations (ZOSOs) provisions as emergency tools in tackling crime and violence appears unbridgeable, which, it seems to me, can only be settled by a revolution in popular attitudes.

Lest we forget, Jamaicans slaughtered some 1,600 of their own in 2017 alone — or, cultivated a homicide rate of 60 per 100,000. This eroded anywhere between five to eight per cent of our annual gross domestic product (GDP). Law-abiding Jamaicans, therefore, not only want justice, they want peace and “law and order” too — even at the expense of the suspension of some of their democratic rights.

This is why to listen at times to the explanation given for our rapidly deteriorating crime problem and the Government's response to it emanating from the lips of Dr Horace Chang, the national security minister, can be a peculiarly painful experience, especially when a particularly gruesome act of murder is committed or a brazen robbery is staged. More often than not, his media-driven exercises only succeed in doing further damage to the Government's credit by giving the impression of crime and bloodletting drifting out of control, and of men and women steeped in power in Jamaica House looking on in wonder and bewilderment. Is it any wonder a military alternative is appearing increasingly attractive?


Full-scale military intervention?

For, given the apparent mishmash in the arena of public power about suitable policies for tackling our crime problem, multitude of thousands of well-meaning Jamaicans since a year ago have volunteered the view that there is a certain enticing quality to full-scale military intervention, or, at the very least, a much more expanded role for the military in our national life. They have come to this view recognising that support for military intervention is in direct proportion to the voluminous increases in the new forms of hard-core, gun-driven criminality and violence such that we have never experienced in this country — with the possible exception of the war-torn years of the latter part of the 1970s, and in the face of which the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) appears powerless.

But, in my opinion, the military solution is no solution to our escalating crime problem. To begin with, the history of the 20th century is replete with examples in which military intervention in countries close to us, such as in Grenada and some Latin and South American countries, have led to military dictatorships and the destruction of democracy as we have come to know it.

Jamaicans confronted with the tightening grip of drugs, guns, and murder may well feel that this negative and coercive phenomenon in our midst deserves intentional pushback action of the most resolute kind, which, from their perspective, only the military that specialises in the legitimate deployment of violence can successfully provide. This dilemma is compounded by the fact that very few from among the political elite possess the moral stature to convince the populace that the military option is deleterious to their democratic aspirations. Even fewer can reassure us that our democracy is not descending into the bestiality of a Hobbesian state of nature, which, as I write, renders life on this piece of Rock in the Caribbean Sea, nasty, brutish, and short.

The crisis becomes even more depressing when we consider that our struggle as a country against crime and violence extends beyond our mainland to encompass our border with the United States — through which comes the majority of the high-powered illegal 'irons' deployed in the commission of hard-core crimes in Jamaica. In light of the fact that it is proving impossible to stop the flow of illegal guns to Jamaica, given that less than one per cent of all containers leaving Miami are fully examined, how effective would the military be in pushing back against this reality?


No military State

To my mind, whether as supporting casts to members of the JCF or not, the men and women of the army should not be put in combative contact with the citizens of their own country. They belong to Up Park Camp, not on the streets. This is the tradition of our democracy and nothing should be done to subvert that.

In any event, there is no support anywhere for this in the annals and tradition of our democracy, which were shaped by the fact that we won our Independence by negotiation rather than by armed resistance. As such, I certainly would like to feel that sustaining and further shaping our Independence in the remaining 21st century would also be done by peaceful means rather than in the din of war. And, with a total complement of 4,430 members, with 1.2 active military personnel per 1,000 of the population, there should be no political disagreement whatsoever over the fact that Jamaica is not a military state; and it must never become one. To be sure, the present Government and those before it did not shoot their way to Parliament. And long may this democratic tradition remain.

While I understand the emergency measures that have been taken by the Government in the panicking circumstances of terrifying gun-driven crime and violence, and hope that they are temporary, I also wish to observe that history teaches us that the generation of the colonial era was never comfortable with the army overstepping its traditional role and penchant for things like swift disaster responses; search and rescue operations; land slippage road clearance tactical manoeuvres; and providing substitute labour when essential service workers withdrew their labour.


Pre-Independence experience

The country's long pre-Independence experience under colonial rule also fostered an admiration for the pageantry and displays of military precision and order which overshadowed the army's monopoly on violence.

From my own experience with the military men in my extended family, for example, I know that Up Park Camp was held in awesome respect, with its colonial commissioned officer corps treated with all the respect and deference due colonial overlords, and they, in turn, responded with the detachment of authority that Sandhurst must have taught them. Their smartness, rigorous discipline, and alertness were given full display in Tattoos (music and marching), official ceremonies, and such delights.

Truth be told, however, things did change not long after Independence in 1962 with the coming of the urban ghettos tenanted by Orlando Patterson's “children of Sisyphus” in all their fury, and when the increase in violent crimes beyond ghetto boundaries threatened the Jamaican Government's constitutional monopoly of coercive power.

But rather mistakenly, the Government of the day turned to the army and brought them out on the streets administering curfews, which soon led to conflicts between the two branches of the security forces largely because the soldiers were not trained for civil contact and often lost their cool and behaved in 'unmilitary' fashion. Talk of coups, counter-coups, and military solutions permeated the air at the time, which brought Up Park Camp, regrettably, into partisan political controversy.

Thankfully, with hard work on the part of successive administrations and leaders of the army, the old professionalism and disinterested detachment seems to be returning among the men and women in uniform at Up Park Camp. But, in light of the public's support today for permanent military involvement in national life, much more needs to be done on a sustained basis by the leadership of the army to reassure the country that despite the vast respect for the psychological orientation of the soldiers in camouflage uniforms, strapped with high-powered weapons, the militarisation of Jamaica is not on the agenda now or anytime soon; neither is the intrusion of soldiers in areas where normal police work should be sufficient.



In the final analysis, Jamaicans need to be told in no uncertain terms that corruption and lawlessness exists under military dictatorships too. Libya, Thailand, Pakistan, Myanmar, Mauritania, and Sudan, are just a few of the countries ruled by the military with high corruption scores.

Jamaica House is hard-pressed to craft a convincing message that conveys the idea that the country's crime problem is unrelated to its economic challenges per se. It is very difficult to speak about the virtues of “capitalist prosperity” and blazing illegal guns, streaming blood, and mounting corpses in the same breath. Nevertheless, like governments before it, this Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Administration will be judged by its performance in raising living standards, tackling environmental problems, and managing the social costs of automation.

But beyond these quick-fire fixes, there is an abundance of empirical evidence pointing to the fact that globalisation, technological innovation, and climate change are all happening simultaneously to push nearly all democratic societies to a post-democratic fate. Thankfully, we in Jamaica are not there yet.

But, in order to avoid this fate, our governors and legislators will have to work tirelessly and smarter to find solutions to our deep existential problems rooted in material grievances. Failing this, the rate of economic grievances – and with it a declining social order — will continue to trend upwards, which will, in turn, make post-democratic solutions, like military rule, that much more attractive.

In this regard, we all have our work cut out for us. Let the debate on the role of the military in our national life begin.

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