Ian Boyne | Go Forte with tough measures
Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte, after her tough-talking, rhetorically gun-blazing Sectoral presentation serving notice that strong legislation was coming to fight crime, concluded by saying: "These are no ordinary times. May God grant us the wisdom to discover the right, the will to choose it and the strength to make it endure."
She had better direct those words to her own prime minister and his Cabinet, for they will need every ounce of will and courage to make upsetting legislative changes and face down the highly vocal, powerful and incendiary set of vested interests opposed to those changes. Political administrations characteristically cower under the pressure from defence attorneys, the media and civil-society activists.
They want to take actions they know, instinctively and rationally, would put a dent to murders, but they are terrified of the power of the chattering classes in setting the agenda and in reframing the issues to swing public opinion against them. In the final analysis and, in fact, the first analysis - politicians think about their own narrow interests and they hate public criticism the way the impure hate virtue. I don't know how many more people have to die, or how many in one weekend, for politicians to finally sacrifice their lust for Most Favoured Status with the powerful voices in the public square.
Marlene Malahoo Forte seems to be one woman not easily fazed by public criticism. Her male colleagues in Government, along with other females there, need to exhibit that stern stuff. But they will have to be prepared to be pilloried, lambasted, and chastised on every interview programme, every talk show, in newspaper editorial after editorial (especially this one), and in column after column.
The very announcement of changes coming has stirred a torrent of commentary from the usual suspects, using apocalyptic language to oppose, oppose, oppose. It takes enormous courage to "choose the right" and even more to "make it endure". Time will tell whether this administration has it. The first question I asked the prime minister when I interviewed him for television on his recent media day was whether he had the courage to deal with the human-rights lobby in pushing for legislative changes such as amending the Bail Act.
Predictably, he protested the framing of the question in that adversarial way, saying the right conciliatory words when I pointed out that defence attorneys had already stormed his suggestion of amending the Bail Act. Ultimately, however, politicians have to choose between hard options. Depending on how relentless the criminals are with their murderous rampage, they might just push even reluctant political leaders to act decisively.
In their own interests (because they are not all fools who are not gauging public opinion and listening to news and commentary), these criminals had better back off, even temporarily, and allow things to cool lest the political administration is forced to back up strong talk with strong action, after all.
For now, the talk is strong, and that, at least, should continue. "We are going to touch the Bail Act. We are going to touch the Criminal Justice (Administration) Act, the Jury Act, the Evidence, the Offences Against the Person Act, to name a few," the attorney general said defiantly, knowing full well what defence attorneys would say. She was being deliberately provocative, touching off their anger. And not giving a damn.
Think she 'fraid a dem'? Hear her, using language that she knew would terrorise and taunt them: "To successfully tackle the murder problem, some of the fundamental rights and freedoms which we have guaranteed to people may have to be abrogated, abridged or infringed ... ." Ouch! She was not trying to win friends and influence people or to curry favour with Cliff Hughes, Dionne Jackson-Miller, Emily Shields or The Gleaner editorial writers.
I could care less about whether she should properly leave those matters to the justice minister or to the minister of national security. I could do without that learned editorial lecture in Thursday's Gleaner mockingly titled 'Mrs Malahoo Forte's new portfolio'. Whatever the dear Constitution says about the role of the attorney general, the Cabinet, etc. does not obviate the attorney general's signalling her own stand on these legislative issues. Those issues are not irrelevant to her purview. Legalistic wrangling over neat distinctions between her role and that of the justice minister are fine, but she has already sent her signals to the criminal class.
"Here is the simple truth," she told Parliament matter-of-factly: "Our beloved island home can no longer afford the high and increasing cost of the crime problem. We have to cut it." Plain and simple. But before we cut it, we have to cut through the rhetoric of vested interests and a medley of misguided voices. Or leave them arguing and philosophising while the administration sets about doing what it was elected to do as a first priority of state action: To ensure security. For there can be no human rights if the State is threatened. If we are not to descend into the Hobbesian pit, security has to be ensured.
It is nonsense to talk about individual civil liberties outside the concept of a secure State. Human rights can only be protected if there is no "war of all against all". These are first principles of the philosophy of law. Show me in history where human rights were protected prior to the State. We must challenge human-rights fundamentalists on not just pragmatic but philosophical grounds.
Happily, our security minister is not engaging in much philosophy at this time, but some very practical, commonsensical reasoning. He gave the stunning statistic that there are 134 people charged with murder who have murdered while on bail. (Did I really hear him correctly?) Now the learned attorneys have reminded us that our courts have already ruled unconstitutional what the administration is thinking of introducing.
Well, hear my practical, common-sense reasoning. No philosophy or bookishness here: If we can lock away 134 dog-heart murderers and prevent them from killing even one person not to mention those who kill six while the courts rule again that it is unconstitutional, that one life saved would be worth it. It would be worth it for their families. Change the law and let the learned judges rule it unconstitutional while we save some lives perhaps including theirs.
We did not elect these judges. We elected the men and women who must now demonstrate guts to take decisive action against criminals who have all the freedom, while ours are already abrogated, abridged, and infringed.
The Gleaner, proud human-rights centre forward, had a curious editorial on Tuesday commenting on the police commissioner's brush-off of the need for a state of emergency in Montego Bay, saying what was needed was social intervention for, "After this (state of emergency) is done, what next? " The kind of question that would be asked by bleeding-heart liberals.
The police commissioner said: "The problems are not going to be fixed by a state of emergency or any significant police action because they are social problems and they will have to be fixed socially." Hear The Gleaner's stunning response considering its own editorial position: "However, people believe, and not wrongly in our view, that things have sometimes to be accomplished in stages and that there are short-term interventions that ought not to be beyond the capacity of the constabulary." Precisely!
The Gleaner ends with a point I have been stressing for years and which I would commend to every one of its editorial writers who pronounce on crime: "We can't wait until all the resources are available to fix Jamaica's social ills before tackling the one (crime) that will ensure that they never are." I could not believe I read that in The Gleaner editorial. We can't wait for long-term solutions when we need to act today!
Social and moral change, yes. But until then, we must save some lives this weekend and the next few weeks. Cliff Hughes wants us to disband the police force for it is irredeemably corrupt. But we can't do that this weekend or next week, and so we have to work with what we have until we have what we want. We have to temper our idealism with a little dose of realism. I hope that we can go Forte with courage to fight crime.
- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to email@example.com.