Thu | Aug 16, 2018

Daniel Thwaites | Acting up and acting out

Published:Sunday | February 11, 2018 | 12:50 AM

With the sudden departure of Police Commissioner George Quallo, the country is on the hunt for a new victim to fill what must be one of the most thankless jobs in the Western Hemisphere. What happened to Quallo? We hardly got to know you, sir!

Anyhow, while the country is running red, we are saddled with an 'acting' commissioner, and with whatever instability and unpredictability that implies. The situation is hardly ideal.

Now Prime Minister Holness has named Bryan Sykes as chief justice, but with the promise that he will rescind the appointment if Justice Sykes isn’t a good boy. Typically, that isn’t how people think about the protocols governing the role of chief justice.

This is unfortunate, for I must come to criticise where I would rather come to praise. For MrHolness has, in another arena, displayed excellent judgement and advanced Dr Nigel Clarke into the forefront of national political life. Elsewhere, I’ve been impressed by his stony pragmatism regarding abstaining from the UN vote against the US moving its embassy in Jerusalem.

It undoubtedly will confound the aged, old-fashioned, and those who think the world revolution is around the corner and likely to be ignited among the Arab resistance, but Holness’ refusal to join in the convoluted tribal warfare over the few acres of contested territory in the Middle East and instead remain laser-focused on Jamaica’s strategic interests seems unimpeachable to me.

But back to the chief justice. There’s an argument gathering steam that the now acting chief justice has determined his own unworthiness by accepting the post under a Holnessian cloud. I sort of see the point, but I think it’s going too far to blame the justice for accepting the promotion when the PM put a spin on the ball. Or rather, I think it a bit much to expect the justice to decline the post because the PM has complicated his ascension to it with some gamesmanship.

As far as I can gather, there’s something of a consensus forming, among those more familiar with legal matters and therefore less susceptible to the distracting pyrotechnics, that the prime minister is not getting perfectly sound advice from his acting attorney general. However that may be, the technical constitutionality of the manoeuvre cannot be confused with its advisability.

The part that I find most disturbing is that the PM has said that the acting chief justice has to prove himself before somehow 'earning' permanent appointment, but the metrics, measures and scales of this testing haven’t been announced. It, therefore, runs the risk of being an arbitrary, personalistic, or narrowly self-interested determination as to whether Justice Sykes is measuring up, which is not encouraging.

The exact quote that I’ve taken from The Gleaner is: "Actions that bring results will determine the assumption of the role of chief justice." What results? And what information do we have about what those “actions” amount to? There are hints about a general concern to move cases along with more dispatch, something hardly within the control of the chief justice primarily.

I’m not sure Mr Holness is losing this debate. The pressure, I reckon, will cause him to appoint Justice Sykes permanently before long. Meanwhile, he has scored by telegraphing that he is overwrought with concern about delays in the courts without actually taking the steps to alleviate it. In this respect, the PM is also acting, and has calculated that taking some cussing from all the right people is quite helpful. It’s excellent PR, however much this unpredictable departure from constitutional convention places the Jamaican Constitution in need of 'enhanced security measures', the excellent new name for the state of public emergency in St James.

Which brings me to the fancy footwork of 'enhanced security measures' and the subject of euphemism, generally defined as “a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing”. That’s what’s going on here, of course, because of the whole 'emergency' thingy is liable to frighten the tourists.

In the absence of concrete and visible advances with the horrendous crime problem, there’s been a determination somewhere very high up the food chain that it’s easier and better to play switcheroo with the language rather than wrestle with the monster.

Fortuitously, I am delighted to comply, for as a general rule, I am a great fan of governmental euphemisms, code words, and the subtle manipulation of meanings to soften the impact of reality. It’s why I’m such a slavish fan of the culture of political correctness and the rapid changes it is bringing to the English language.

Professor Damien King, a ranking member of the cultural Twitterati, suggests that murders now be called "enhanced dispute-resolution events”, and I think we ought to embrace that suggestion. So enhanced dispute-resolution events lead to people getting 'dedded', which I would rather think of as people becoming 'environmentally correct', 'metabolically challenged', 'living impaired', or 'ontologically disadvantaged'. Take your pick. And, of course, the persistent problem is that too many people are still 'deddin'.

For while the murderers, henceforth to be known as 'violence producers' and 'termination specialists', have had to flee St James and have become temporarily homeless, now known as 'residentially flexible', those in the other parishes haven’t been lazy, or 'motivationally dispossessed'. They are acting up and acting out.

All of which brings us back to the sorry state of affairs where we have an acting commissioner of police and an acting chief justice, meaning that the whole law-enforcement machinery is controlled by actors less likely to act. It’s an unacceptable state of affairs, and MrHolness would do well to fix that part of it which is in his remit to act on.

- Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.