The Source of Crime in Jamaica
Over time, it has become a firm belief for the majority of Jamaicans that the source of criminality in our society has nothing to do with the vast majority of us, the law abiding citizens, but instead has everything to do with “them” – the criminal element.
Recently I have begun to give thought to a radical notion: that we are deceiving ourselves on this point. Perhaps the source of criminality in our country is not far away, remote and difficult to conceive. Perhaps it has everything to do with choices, decision and behaviours that we, the average citizens, exercise on a daily basis.
In the current frame of mind that we find ourselves in (i.e. that the cause of criminality is “them” and not “us,”) then it’s not surprising that the solutions that we come up with are all about dealing with “them.” These solutions can be summarized in the statement: “if we could only find a way to deal with ‘them’ (the perpetrators of crime) then we would all be safe.” This line of thinking leads us to think of solutions that focus solely on “them,” e.g. we have to improve the legal system, accelerate hanging, give the police more latitude, eradicate corruption from our security forces, and we have to “fahget bout no police, and tek care of de bad bwoy dem weself.”
The problem with all of these “solutions” is that they leave us, you and I, out of the picture with respect to what we can do to affect change. After all, doing something like changing the country’s legal system is not done by you or I acting on our own. Passing new laws and reforming the security forces is beyond our reach. Most of us are afraid of becoming vigilantes (although many are just looking for an opportunity.)
This kind of thinking leads us to “solutions” in which we suppose that we have little to do with stopping crime, and nothing to do with the cause of it. They don’t begin to address the problem of what it is that actually creates criminality in the first place.
In keeping with these kinds of “solutions” we often attribute the causes of Jamaican crime to macro-realities such as poverty and a lack of education. However, Tara Abrahams-Clivio, in her column in the Jamaica Observer of January 20th, 2005, noted that from her observations, the poorest countries did not have the highest murder rates. Incidentally, Jamaica is not among the poorest countries in the world. Also, she noted, levels of education did not seem to be correlated with murder rates from country to country. Jamaica is not among the least educated countries in the world.
Yet, in the year 2000, Jamaica had the third highest murder rate in the world with 887 murders in that year. In 2004, we had a total of 1445 murders which would have put our murder rate just below that of the most dangerous country in the world in 2000 – Columbia (which is neither the poorest nor the least educated.)
I believe that there are solutions that we can find that are much closer to home, and in fact can be found in every home, and are therefore immediately implementable. Perhaps our high murder rate has something to do with the following three sources: the personal pictures that we have of God’s personality, our willingness to tolerate violence, and our propensity to try to separate and differentiate ourselves from who are close to us, and therefore we are one with.
Long before the idea of killing someone enters the mind of a would-be murderer, there is a relationship that they develop that powerfully shapes their actions. That relationship is the one that they have with God. A Jamaican child growing up comes to hear that God exists, and as God is described to them, comes to form an image in their mind of who He is, and how He relates to us – in short, God’s personality. As they grow up and develop what are sometimes murderous intentions, they do so against the backdrop of their personal spirituality; that is, their relationship with God.
If the personality that they ascribe to God in their mind’s eye is one that is vain, violent and vengeful, then it follows that they will, in seeking to “be like Him,” model their behavior after Him. In today’s Jamaican society, this is exactly what happens. We teach each other that He is vain (put me first or else), violent (The Passion of the Christ was one of the most violent movies of 2004) and vengeful (hell and its fires are waiting for those of us who do not follow the narrow way.)
This picture of God’s personality is not just taught, it is also said to be above question (and for some, questioning is itself a grave sin.) We pass this unexamined picture on to our children in our homes and churches to help “keep them in check.” It is widely accepted in our society that this is one of the best ways to raise children i.e. afraid of God and what He will do to them. After all, it worked for us, therefore it must work for them. (This is said without asking if the current murder part is proof that it is “working for us.”)
We, the older generation, have passed on these lessons faithfully, even in the face of growing evidence that its first teachers were slave owners, who after all introduced us to this particular picture of God. Even though, in many ways, the British themselves no longer pass on this picture of God’s personality to children in their society en masse, we have apparently learned the lesson too well, and continue to teach it in ours (while deriding their new choices as crazy.)
To examine the nature of our murders is to confront stories of vanity, violence and vengeance. By and large, murder in our country is not a random crime. Over 90% of our murders are said to be committed by people who know the victim, or have some vested interest in having them dead. A tremendous number are related to revenge killing, disagreements and paybacks for “disrespect.” A wrong look, an accidental bump or a bad joke can get someone killed.
In short, our murders are being conducted by those of us who insist on being vain, violent and vengeful. They have taken the lessons they have learned about God literally, and to its extreme. They have the very same mindset that we have taught our children, and that our parents taught us. And, we defend this mindset as one that is ordained by God.
The belief that God is violent has had a palpable impact on our society. An outsider from another planet who has no understanding of our culture would conclude that we Jamaicans are in love with physically violent behavior. We joke about it, sing about it, boast about it, promote it, threaten each other with it, resort to it when we are upset and perpetrate it at will. Furthermore, you would think that the kind of violence that they would see the most of would be murders, assaults, rapes and other criminal acts.
The kind of violence they would see occurring most frequently would be related to violence that we don’t even see for ourselves, because it is so common. Instead, it would be violence we perpetrate on each other daily, and one example of the form it takes falls under the general heading of “physical punishment.”
We use physical punishment as a tool of enforcement, and we use it frequently in the following settings, among others: parents on young children, teachers on young students, boyfriends on girlfriends, citizens on gays, policemen on the accused, fans on football referees, prison warders on prisoners and drug dons on innocent citizens.
The only common thread between these everyday examples is that they involve one ostensibly strong party acting against a weaker party. Through everyday, commonplace violent acts we teach our young, and reinforce for each other, that violence is an acceptable way of imparting useful and necessary “lessons.”
We then go further, and defend our right to impart these “lessons,” becoming indignant if anyone attempts to question what we see as something close to a God-given right. We insist that we have a right to physically punish those who are powerless, and weaker than us. In other words, we claim that we have a right to take violent action against them, arguing, once again, that “it worked for us” and making the point that the only reason who have so many criminals is because “no one nevah give dem a good beating.”
Yet, our society is capable of rethinking and changing itself in this matter. At one point in our history, domestic violence was acceptable, as was violence against Rastafarians. While we argued then that it was necessary “punishment,” we no longer say this with quite the same conviction, nor do we use past history for a justification for its continuation.
Perhaps murder, when it occurs, is just an extension of the punishment and violence we willingly perpetrate against each other, especially against those of us who are relatively weak and powerless. Physical punishment, capital punishment and murder are accepted legal and extra-legal ways to teach someone else a “lesson.” What if we got out of the business of teaching lessons through physical punishment altogether? After all, it’s common sense that violence only breeds further violence. Why wouldn’t physical punishment do anything else than lead to further punishment down the road? Perhaps the way to reduce violence, and physical punishment is to stop it altogether in any form it may take.
What gives this propensity to exact punishment is that we, ordinary Jamaicans, have become intolerant and fearful of “the other” – those that are different from “us.” We “create camps” – dividing ourselves “us” and “them,” and then set about the destruction of “them” – all in order to protect “us.”
A most obvious example is the division of our body politic into Socialists and Laborites. Our small country is so divided politically that we often refuse to take any responsibility for the part we have played in co-creating the political leadership we have in Jamaica (or lack thereof.)
The behavior that results is that we blame “them” for all sorts of wrongs, real and imagined. We talk about how “they” should be hurt, punished, or put to death. We condemn and curse “them,” all the while attempting to create a distance between us and “them” that we think, by force of rhetoric, will leave them guilty and worthy of pain, and us innocent and worthy of praise.
You and I, the average Jamaican, are the ones who create and sustain these camps, in all areas of our lives.
- In religion, we condemn those who think differently from us to a painful future in the afterlife, even if they may be sitting in a pew next to ours.
- In society, we condemn those who are rich, or those who are poor as wicked, jelous or just “bad.”
- In politics, we create opposing camps within parties, condemning those who believe differently.
- In communities, we draw imaginary lines and make enemies of those who live on the other side of the lane, avenue or gully.
- In our justice system, we lynch those we suspect of crimes, and encourage the abuse of prisoners.
We learned how to do this, once again, from our ancestors, the vast majority of whom were slaves. They, in turn, probably learned it first when they were slaves, and were separated into field slaves and house slaves, and then taught to hate those in the opposing camp. Once created, these camps are difficult to overcome, yet we as a people were able to do it when we accomplished our independence from the British. Out of Many, came One.
If there’s any truth to the idea that our crime in Jamaica has its roots in the above three sources, then it’s likely that the ideas I’ve presented will at first be rejected. They can be heard as very bad news, and as an attempt on the part of this writer to cast blame on the reader for the rising crime rate. “Who is he to blame us? What does he know?” – some will say. “Where are these ideas from? – America? Upper St. Andrew? The Ivory Towers of Academia? Some nutty, New Age religion? “
This reaction is a normal one. After all, it is much easier to blame someone else than it is to examine oneself, and we are well practiced in the game of discrediting those who point out where we could be doing better.
However, this defensive reaction need not stop us from looking carefully at these three sources.
There actually might be very good news here. The good news might be a recognition that the actions we have been calling for to reduce our murder rates, have in fact been contributing to the dramatic increase we have seen in the past year. This could lead us to take more informed actions.
Furthermore, if there is any truth to the three sources I’ve described above, then we need not wait for the next election, or for the laws to change, or for the police to become less corrupt to begin to take actions to reduce our murder rate. We can start to inquire into what it is that we are doing to contribute to creating the atmosphere of violence that we find ourselves in each day.
We can ask ourselves: Are we seeing God as vain, violent and vengeful? Are we promoting punishment and celebrating violence in our homes? Are we creating differences, and opposing camps, dividing ourselves into a benevolent “us” and a condemnable “them?” While there is no answer to fit us all, the question if honestly asked, might lead us to take individual actions that do make a difference.
At one point, we Jamaicans were seen as leaders in the struggle to create love, peace and justice. We were strong in our support for the civil and human rights of Black people in America, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Many other participants in struggles for liberation in other countries played the music of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and others for inspiration.
How did we lose our way? When did we go from being “leaders in the struggle” to the point where we are among the most violent countries in the world? Our national anthem says “Strengthen us the weak to cherish.” Our national pledge says “I promise to stand up for justice, brotherhood and peace… so that Jamaica may… play her part in advancing the welfare of the whole human race.”
When I work to expand my definition of “the weak” to include some of the groups named above, such as young children, students, gays, girlfriends, the accused, football referees, and prisoners, I start to see the society that we have created today differently. It starts to look to me as if we have a long way to go in advancing the welfare of the average Jamaicans that we come into contact with each and every day. We can start that journey together by taking responsibility for ourselves – the source of all that is good, and bad, in our country, including our crime.