We have reduced ourselves to spectators, watching on as another 500 of our fellow citizens will be murdered by the end of 2019.
Would we spectate if 500 lives were threatened by an epidemic or by starvation? Surely there would be a concerted effort to prevent the spread of the disease or to feed the hungry.
We continue to hear public comments that fill us with emptiness—“the victims are known to the police” or “they were in the wrong place at the wrong time”. Unofficially, comments are made in whispers, to the effect that “it is better for all of us if they kill off each other”.
Wouldn’t we be repulsed if 500 people were dying of sickness or hunger and the society pronounced that it was better if they all died?
I have intentionally chosen disease and starvation as metaphors for murder. The analysis of violence as a contagious disease is not new and is being used to stem the senseless deaths of young black and Hispanic males in the murderous inner sections of cities like Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles in the US, with positive results.
Who is dying from the epidemic? In the case of Trinidad and Tobago the available data suggests that most victims of this violence epidemic are black males under the age of 35. In fact, the leading cause of death among young black men in T&T is murder.
How is it being spread is more complex in my opinion, and, based on experience interacting with state agencies, NGOs and the man in the street I wish to suggest that the principal agent of infection is the lack of self-esteem that many of these young men acquire in their formative years.
They are treated—mistreated, really—in a way that deprives them of a sense of self-worth or pride in themselves and, they assume, understandably, that others view them in this way as well. They quickly recognise that they are powerless ...except for the power to kill.
I had a sidewalk conversation many years ago with a young man who said to me that he had no status or possession to command any respect from anyone except, that in his pocket, he had a weapon with 12 reasons to make others respect him.
The proven predictor of a spread of an epidemic is a previous case of the disease. In the case of murder we know that one murder or a spate of murders is a predictor of more murders to come.
The startling lack of justice stimulates the spread because unless his family, friends or fellow gang members (the gang as a substitute for the family and the gang leader as a substitute father) avenge his death, the murderer(s) will walk free and among the living with impunity. A report to the police will allegedly also lead to the further spread of the violence as this report, it is rumoured, will be shared with the criminals who committed the murders. All these instances are opportunities to interrupt the spread of the contagious murder spree.
I believe that there is a hunger for acceptance among those infected in this epidemic that, if addressed, will not only isolate the carriers of the disease but provide healing to them that could be equal in effect to the provision of food to the starving.
Those who hunger for acceptance need a dynamic change from a society that wants to punish this problem into submission with executions and superior fire-power. They need respect as children in schools, patients in health institutions and as citizens who are often profiled by the police.
They need a society that understands that a simple greeting of hello or good morning is a building block of human repair in a country once admired for our community spirit.
I am not advocating that we turn a blind eye to any lawbreaking whatsoever but we need to wake up to the reality that more than 70 per cent of our murder epidemic has absolutely no relationship to robbery or property theft and understanding this could assist us to create behaviour change that saves hundreds of lives per year.
Deepening this discussion by including the need for urgent new policies on education, promoting family life with tax credits, decriminalising the warring over the pervasive ganja trade and other interventions to save lives are necessary and vital. If five persons were at risk of dying from cholera or influenza we would, as a nation, rush into action to save their lives. With the prospect of another 500 dying from an epidemic of murder shouldn’t we be ashamed that all we are doing is spectating?
THE AUTHOR is president of the Downtown Owners and Merchant Association.