Everybody is frightened.
Martin Henry, Contributor
People are terrified. Women are terrified. Children are terrified. Old people are terrified. Everybody is frightened.
While I was in one of the world's safest big cities, London, a couple of weeks ago, a Jamaican newspaper ran a front-page investigative story, 'Do you feel safe?', which reported: "Jamaicans say they feel more vulnerable in the glare of rising crime." One of Britain's major stories holding media attention for days while I was there was the abduction and murder of a little girl, five-year-old April Jones, in Wales, a rare crime among a population of 62.5 million people.
A few weeks ago, the unthinkable happened there: The murder of two unarmed women police officers in the city of Manchester by a madman gangster.
They should read our newspapers and tune in to our news broadcasts!
While Commissioner of Police Owen Ellington is valiantly seeking to give assurance from the top of a 'security' force pledged 'to protect, reassure, and serve' that crime is declining, the stories of depraved criminal violence with unimaginable atrocity unrelentingly keep coming at us.
Major crimes, the commissioner said a couple of months ago, have fallen by 13.3 per cent between January and July compared to the same period last year. What consolation is this really, starting from one of the highest murder rates in the world at some 45 per 100,000 in 2011? Up to the end of August, 643 Jamaicans had already been slaughtered for the year.
Months in descending order of murderousness: May, 120; January, 108; February, 96; June, 88; July, 87; March, 73; April, 71. And this in a population, STATIN tells us from the just-released 2011 census, of 2,697,983. The census-taking itself was affected by crime and violence, and workers couldn't collect data at nights in many areas, the most convenient time to find people at home.
You can pick your own horror story from the flood of crimes and acts of violence against the person which are inundating us and driving fear into our hearts. We don't recover from one before another threatens to overwhelm us. We have to forget them fast and detach ourselves from them as a coping mechanism to remain sane. And many Jamaicans are not managing to remain sane.
Last week, firefighters responding to a call about a bush fire on the Port Royal Road found the body of a teenage girl with hands bound and a cord around her neck wrapped in a tarpaulin and set on fire. Raped, murdered, discarded, and burnt like a roadkill dog. Not the crime of the decade, or even of the year, or the month. The crime of the day. One of the murders of the day. With murders now averaging around three per day.
While gangsters shooting each other still tops the list of causes of murder, and domestic disputes follow, there is a pattern of random violence, including a spate of criminal attacks upon the most vulnerable who are raped, murdered, and discarded like used toilet paper. Foreigners are telling us that the police are making arrests in only 44 per cent of murders, and the conviction rate is a mere five per cent of cases (US State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Crime and Safety Report on Jamaica, 2012).
Vigilante justice is on the rise, representing a dangerous loss of control of authority by the State, but not without its own logic. The number one business of the State and its Government is to protect life and property, and to deliver justice. In this the Government of Jamaica has been a miserable failure, and citizens have been pushed to take the law into their own hands, acting to remove perceived threats to their safety and security.
The good commissioner of police has been reminding the country that vigilante action is a crime and will be prosecuted. Perhaps dereliction of duty in protecting citizens should be made a crime. But who to prosecute?
Jamaica has sometimes been compared, wrongfully, to the US Wild West, scandalising the true West of history while pandering to the West of the movies. The West of real history was less lawless and less violent than Jamaica is today. Advancing beyond the reach of the official State, settlers secured their communities, their lives and their property through vigilantism. When prevention didn't work, disturbers of the peace were taught a lesson, with deterrence attached. The six-shooter was more an instrument of law enforcement than of lawbreaking. The sheriff was an ordinary citizen assigned special law-enforcement powers by his neighbours, who pledged to help him carry out those duties.
A spirit of lawlessness, not a strong feature of the old West, pervades Jamaica, placing both its initial acts of crime and violence and the vigilante response on a different plane. The biblical spectre of every man's hand against his brother has descended upon us. And fear rules the land. No one is safe; or can feel safe.
A working man, a decent family man, Morris Williams, stepped off a bus in Spanish Town on his way home from work one day last week and was killed by an escaping robber firing shots into a crowd. Another man was shot and injured.
That other response to danger of communities being protected by dons and gangs has its own rational logic as a reaction to the failure of the State to do its job. The devilish injection of guns into poor urban communities by politics converted the fight for scarce benefits into armed conflict between paramilitary groups. A situation which has nurtured a general culture of criminal violence and the normalisation of crime. The don and his gang, replacing the State and its police force, enforce a crude law and order within the enclave.
The people of Tivoli Gardens were recently in the papers lamenting the upsurge of crime in west Kingston since the State removed the 'President' and smashed the system of enforcement with its own court, jail and execution chamber. Enforcement in don-ruled enclaves includes actions which the Jamaican State would regard as criminal. And crime is often directed outwards against enemies and against persons and businesses out of whom maintenance resources are extracted by extortion.
WHAT MUST BE DONE
It is not going to be an easy task to protect and reassure the Jamaican people. Crime is now a mature monster which has grown up aided and abetted by the 'system'. It is now threatening to devour all of us. Who is not killed or injured, or robbed, or raped, or extorted (yet) is crippled by fear.
There are two clear tasks before us to restore confidence in the capacity of the State to provide public safety, to maintain law and order, and to protect citizens and their property. In the first instance, incidence of crime and violence must be driven down in dramatic fashion to much lower levels. A 13.3 per cent reduction in non-murder crimes is not a confidence factor. Perpetrators must be caught and punished. The conditions which breed crime and violence must be ameliorated.
But, also, and just as important as the first, the generalised lawlessness which is driving actual acts of criminality will have to be driven back. And this is a huge attitudes and values issue bigger than police and courthouse. In the meantime, lock the grille (if you are rich enough to afford one), mind where you go, get in before it is too late, watch your children, walk in posses, don't appear to have anything worth stealing. Others will go further and use counter-violence and vigilante justice in an effort to protect themselves, their property and their communities.
The State and its Government have failed us. We are ruled by fear.
Martin Henry is a communication analyst. Email
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