Ewart Walters, GUEST COLUMNIST
In a thoughtful editorial, The Gleaner (November 21, 2013) called on Police Commissioner Owen Ellington and National Security Minister Peter Bunting to consider their options. Demonstrating understandable reluctance to persecute or prosecute, the editorial nevertheless reflects the fear and agony of the cowering country that the ravaging beast of crime continues to plunder at will.
A similar note was sounded the day before by the Jamaica Observer, which then added another dimension: "The Government can't be so focused on the country's economic challenges that it neglects the social problems. For, in fact, both are inextricably linked."
Clearly, Jamaica is not content with the untamed, unrelenting status quo. And yet ... .
On Tuesday, June 18, the Observer delivered itself of an editorial titled 'Press on, Mr Ellington'. It was in fact the third editorial of trenchant support for the commissioner of police in less than a month, for it followed editorials on June 10 and June 3. And they all resounded the theme, 'security must be the first law', that was trumpeted by Commissioner Ellington in a most remarkable article on June 2 titled 'Dealing effectively with guns and drugs for improved public safety'.
Bear in mind that The Gleaner accurately describes him as "perhaps the most intelligent head of the constabulary Jamaica has had in recent history," and commends his analyses of Jamaica's crime problem as "penetrating".
Let me say at the outset that the commissioner's article is the most astounding I have seen in a Jamaican newspaper for many years.
Astounding, because it presents a report from a major public servant - not to his minister, not to the Police Services Commission, and not to the prime minister.
Astounding, because it is a clear appeal to civil society - the country as a whole.
Astounding, because except for the three Observer editorials mentioned above and some exposure and discussion on Nationwide radio - and perhaps television, which I do not often get to see from my perch here - it does not seem to have garnered any traction past June 18.
The astonishment is compounded by the fact that the proposals made by the commissioner of police to grab hold of violent crime and gun murders by the neck and throttle it with strong action that would afford the country the breathing space to grow and prosper socially and economically, has not stirred either the Government or the Opposition (both of which seem to be far more interested in party politics and winning elections), or the doyens of civil society to whom they were addressed.
It is civil society, remember, that pressured the then government into the capitulation that eventually sent Dudus away and allowed security forces unfettered, everyday access into sections of West Kingston that had for decades been garrisoned out of bounds. Hear The Gleaner: "In 2010, the security forces entered the West Kingston redoubt of the mobster Christopher Coke and routed his militia, who were attempting to prevent Coke's arrest and extradition to the United States. Jamaica's criminal gangs were in retreat."
But since then, what?
GANGS ARE BACK
"The police, however, have not solidified and built upon that initial success. The criminal gangs and extortionists, including in West Kingston, are back with a vengeance ... . Jamaica is sinking beneath the burden of gun crime. Only around 12 per cent of the perpetrators of murders risk being arrested and possibly facing the courts. That, clearly, is an environment in which criminals can operate with impunity." Violent gun crime, including murder, extortion and rape, has resurfaced with a vengeance.
Then, the police commissioner presented a proposal ... and it is greeted - with silence?
With the exception of his apparent misstatement or misunderstanding of the concept of 'the rule of law', Mr Ellington's article was a solid piece of work, well researched, and very well argued.
The rule of law is not a matter of a policeman saying do as I say and don't argue. Nor is it the placing of the country under the heavy manners of a police state. The rule of law means that there is not one law for Cherry Gardens and another for Tivoli; one law for judges and another for offenders; one law for Mavado and another for Vybz Kartel.
The rule of law is the main plank of our democracy which says that the law - not rich, powerful individuals or agencies - is supreme, and all people are equal before the law.
Mr Ellington has shown that by the firm application of respect for the law, Singapore has ended up with a solution to its crime monster. Any person caught with an illegal gun goes to prison for life. Not indefinite, but definite detention. Colombia, too, has seen a massive reduction in its gun crime rate. He credits this to government leadership, based on government recognition that drastic sores need drastic medicine.
He also cites Colombia's turnaround. Today, the state is in full control of Colombia's territory; the country's murder rate has dropped to around 30 per 100,000 of the population. Colombia achieved economic growth of 4.6 per cent between 2004 and 2009. The economy was described as a 'rising star' by the International Monetary Fund in 2011.
This turnaround in Colombia's fortunes has been credited to the leadership of President Alvaro Uribe, which began in 2002. Anthony Harrington, writing in QFinance, February 17, 2011, quoted from a speech by current Colombian President Manuel Santos in which the latter praised his predecessor for his decisiveness in leadership. He notes that upon taking office, President Uribe applied a very simple, yet very important concept that the Romans invented - namely, that security must be the first law of the republic otherwise the other laws will not operate effectively.
'Security' meant that every citizen should be able to go about their business, secure in their possession of their property and their rights. It also meant taking back Colombia from the rebels and drug lords.
What Mr Ellington wants is a lawful society where people respect the law and abide by it because the result of any other behaviour is too painful to ignore. He wants the option of fines for gun crimes removed completely. He wants 20-year minimum prison sentences for gun criminals.
He issues a timely and important warning about the place of human-rights concerns: "Any preoccupation with human-rights backlash from bold and courageous policies to enhance public security will only assure continued deterioration in the quality of life for all Jamaicans, rather than the denial of freedom for the few who undermine our security."
Surely, he is not alone. Surely, our prime minister, minister of justice and minister of national security, not to mention the ministers of finance, education, agriculture, and technology, or the Opposition - they all want this, too.
What then holds them back? Is it that they, too, are waiting on civil society to bring them to their senses?
And if that is the case, on what, pray, is civil society waiting?
The Gleaner is right in sounding the alarm bells (carefully) by saying the two men in charge have not delivered the goods and should consider their options. But that is not the end of the matter.
In 2010, there was a change in Jamaica, and the criminals were on the run. The reason for this was not the Government; it was civil society, civil society that pressured the Government. Thus pressured, the Government acted.
Why governments don't seem to want to do anything until they are pressured is another matter. This Government might say it does not have the money to put all the needed elements in place, and while there might be some truth there, one has to wonder about the will. For money by itself can do nothing absent the will. The Government will also need the firm support of the Opposition in this national venture. Is this forthcoming?
Commissioner Ellington wants security, personal security, to be the Shekinah light of the land. He has called out in his distress to civil society for help. He wants Jamaica to apply the remedies of Singapore and Colombia - admittedly two autocratic countries. But Jamaica has a sore foot that endangers the whole body.
Surely, it cannot be the vested interests of US visas alone that impelled civil society to act in 2010. Surely, it was a demand for safety and security - a safety and security that was lost when the dons and deejays displaced the teachers and the social workers as community builders and defenders.
The Gleaner, in its role of thought-leader in Jamaica, might wish to recapture the spirit of its campaign in its redoubtable series, 'The Gangs of Gordon House', and stimulate civil society - of which it is a part - into action.
It is only when we act together as a people that we will restore to the top of our agenda the incomplete task of nation building.
Ewart Walters is a journalist and former diplomat who lives in Ottawa. His autobiography, 'To Follow Right - A Journalist's Journey', was published in 2011. His new book, 'We Come From Jamaica - The National Movement 1937-1962', will be published in the spring. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.