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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Murder Most Fowls and Most Other Animals


Dr. Lester CN Simon

I have always wanted to be a detective. It all started with my fascination with the Green Lantern superhero and, more pedestrian, my absorption of Perry Mason novels, the first books without pictures that I had read. At first, all I wanted to do was to catch the crooks and show them how smart I was. Now, all I want to do is to understand why we have crooks, and reveal how I am not so smart after all.

My fascination with crime detection was peaked in Jamaica. I had done my medical internship at Kingston Public Hospital (KPH) in 1977 and during my six months on general surgery and orthopaedics, a strange association occupied my time and space, living adjacent to the hospital. It was the sound of gunshot from the neighbourhood and the subsequent ring of the telephone. Since then, I have always looked to Jamaica to find the causes and solutions to the crime wave soaring across the Caribbean. But I have been looking in the wrong place. Let’s go north and examine the greatest country on earth, the land of the free and the brave, the murder capital of the world, the United States of America.

It was reported by Jill Lepore in the November 9, 2009 edition of The New Yorker that “The United States has the highest homicide rate of any affluent democracy, nearly four times that of France and the United Kingdom, and six times that of Germany”. Might we in the Caribbean learn something from America regarding why one country is more murderous than another?

One of the theories reported by Lepore to explain the long decline of the murder rate in Europe from the Middle Ages to the present is the civilizing process. Simply put, this refers to a gamut of behaviours that require physical restraint and self-control. Importantly, it also reflects the “growing power of the centralizing state to disarm civilians, control violence, enforce law and order, and, broadly, to hold a monopoly on the use of force”.

How then does the United States fit into this mold? The American homicide rate has always been higher than Europe’s, even from the start. The reasons put out by some Europeans is that Americans have not undergone the same civilizing process (some might say outright that American are not civilized). The argument goes on that democracy came too soon to America. The suggestion is that, unlike in America, by the time democracy came to Europe, the populace had accepted the authority of the state.

It is argued that the American Revolution happened before Americans got used to the idea of a state monopoly on force. Americans have not only preserved the right for individuals to bear arms (rather than yielding this right to a strong central government). They still have medieval manners such as impulsiveness, crudeness and a belief in a culture of honour. In the case of the latter, Europeans are said to have replaced the culture of honour with a culture of dignity.

The lesson from this comparison between Europe and America is that we West Indians may be more American than we think. No matter how we try to avoid it, we seem to be forever circling the roundabout of how we build a society from slavery and colonialism, from a culture of honour in which “dissing” can cause your death, to a culture of dignity,without addressing reconciliation and reparations.

Recently, I heard the head of the Observer Group say that he was not interested in reparations, all he wanted was opportunities. I used to say the same thing, until I came to the conclusion that individual opportunities will be given, and I have been a beneficiary of the same, but collective opportunities require a seminal shift from a culture of dishonour (slavery) through a culture of honour (post slavery) to a culture of dignity (the future). Collectively, only reparations can do that for all us, West Indians and former colonials within and without the West Indies.

Crudeness can be rampant and subtle. I recall apologizing to a medical student friend after a movie for hitting him very hard during an action scene in the movie. He promptly, told me not to worry because, obviously unbeknownst to me, he had returned the favour in excessive measure. Crudeness applies to the way we eat (no more finger-licking chicken?) and terms we use, like “box off” a plate of food. It also applies to how we treat our womenfolk, directed, as we are, to either make her walk and talk, or “gee she work fu do”, with all the burning flames consuming her.

Some researchers say that the prevalence of guns in America does not support the high murder rate in America. Lepore noted that some scholars have suggested that laws allowing concealed weapons actually lower the murder rate. I recall the first (and only) time a gun was pointed in my face. My entire life passed in a slow-motion flash before me, like a movie, popcorn (with butter), soft drinks and cartoons included. The lasting effect is still present.

Lepore lists other theories for the high murder rate in America. Four other factors mentioned were, mobility, federalism, slavery and tolerance. Mobility has fractured the social fabric that used to bind society together; plus criminals can escape more easily, or blend in so well amongst a crowd of strangers in a small town like St. John’s, with a crowd of football fans peeping.

Federalism is said to be a weak form of government. There are other forms of weak government, such as West Indians in a small (place) state, disrespecting politicians and politicians allowing disrespect as a currency for being local, colloquial and for obtaining votes. Slavery, Lepore argues, rationalized a culture of violence. Tolerance, speak for itself here. From tolerating bad driving, bad roads, bad service, to bad credit, bad behavior, bad debt, bad death, and murder.

One remarkable point Lepore makes would be seen as racist, were it leveled at West Indian. She makes it in reference to Americans. One of the theories she mentions, leads her to conclude that Americans are medieval and backward and warlike, because they became free before they learnt how to control themselves. Risking the loss of friends, I wish to say the very same thing about post-slavery, post-colonial West Indian society. But I have a caveat.

Whenever freedom comes, it must be grasped with hands and feet and whatever else. Freedom must be wrestled away from the enemy, taken and celebrated. Immediately thereafter, the real battle to win the war begins. The battle is to build a society so that we can move from an disparate, murderous ten to one to an attempted oneness of civility, accepting as our battle cry that we will still be imperfect, but less so.

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