13 July 2008

Going round in circles

John Maxwell

My first piece for this paper, 12 years and about 700 columns ago, was called “Watching Ideas Burn”. It was about the confluence of unsustainable development and dysfunctional politics. The column began with these words:

‘I’m sitting at my computer, watching part of Jamaica’s future burn. It’s been burning for four days so far, and despite the best efforts of the fire brigade, it will probably go on burning perhaps for weeks or even months.

‘Garbage dumps are temperamental things and if there is enough carbonaceous material underneath to supply the methane, a garbage dump can burn for years, just like an oil well, and for the same reasons.”

A few months after that occurred another of our serial panics about crime and violence – about which most of the journalistic pundits – myself included – wrote ad nauseam. This followed panics of 1974 (Suppression of Crimes Act & Gun Court) and 1968 (Shearer’s “No Beatitudes”) and as far back in history as we care to go we have these regular outbreaks of lawlessness, hooliganism, ‘rude bwoys”; and for each outbreak there are the same solutions proposed: armed militias, more firearms, military service for youth, indefinite detention and long, long, prison sentences.

This latest outbreak of bourgeoise hysteria was given a poignant twist in an article by that former terror of the bourgeoise, Professor Don Robotham, now turned gamekeeper and a severe critic of working class lawlessness.

Robotham explicitly supports a programme of indefinite detention to be used to deprive people of their liberty because someone suspects them of criminal behaviour. Delicately, he proposes a “a law - and human rights-governed detention system. This makes it fundamentally different from all previous approaches, barring none.”

According to Robotham:

“ The first thing to establish, therefore, is (sic) the precise standards of information which any detention order would have to meet. Would such an order have to rise to the current standards for an indictment, or would the standards be lower? How much lower, and in what respects? With the help of our experienced lawyers and human rights community we can define this quite stringently and reduce arbitrariness to a minimum.”

In such a system we will not try people on evidence; they will no longer to face their accusers in court, they will no longer be deemed innocent until proven guilty. Robotham wants to suborn the whole hierarchy of the human rights lobby into surrendering their rights and the rights of the poor and helpless in the grand and noble cause of defeating crime.

Robotham’s article, entitled “Nolle prosequi” argues that there is something seriously wrong in the system of justice because “…cases … collapsed because the witnesses had vanished without a trace, some, no doubt, sent to join their ancestors. All the painstaking investigative work of the police and the diligence of the prosecution came to naught. The Government had no choice but to advise the court that they could not proceed - nolle prosequi. The guns barked, the witnesses fled, the cases collapsed, end of story”.

There are lots of things wrong with this scenario. The main thing is that unlike almost any other police force in the world, the Jamaican police depend almost exclusively on eye-witness evidence. To talk about painstaking investigation is mostly a joke.

There are two problems with eye-witness evidence. One is that it is the most unreliable evidence; two is that there are not normally that many witnesses to a crime who hang around to be identified by the cops. Many policemen work by what I call approximation. ‘You were approximately here so you must be a witness and you were approximately there so you must be the gunman.’

The real problem is a problem of police intelligence.

It is my belief that the incidence of unsolved crime is correlated to the number of police cars imported over any five year period.

Beat duty has been abandoned and the police swoop down on ghetto communities like the American Special Forces in Vietnam. This is not an original observation. I first made it more than 40 years ago in Public Opinion.

When a policeman walks down a street on a regular beat he will talk randomly to all sorts of people who will tell him good morning or offer him a glass of water or drop a casual word in his ear. Nobody but he will know who told him what. Nobody is identifiable as an informer. As he goes through the community other bits of information will filter down to him, second hand, third hand and, sometimes, firsthand. As the community develops confidence in his presence that alone will ‘cool’ some of the least daring and will make the most reckless more careful, at least. But more than that, the unarmed beat duty policeman becomes a walking data base of useful information which he can eventually hand over to the investigators.

Unfortunately, we have abandoned this simple preventive device in favour of mechanised counter-terror.

That has never worked anywhere in the world

No criticism of the police

Robotham, like many of us, is afraid of police violence. He will never criticise the police force for its carelessness and ineptitude which may be far greater dangers than corruption. The police federation has been allowed by successive governments to become almost a law unto itself, the only trade union of which Jamaicans are afraid.

If we are going to begin a serious assault on crime we have to strengthen those in the federation who understand and practice good police work and get rid of the noisemakers whose purpose is simply to get by with as little work and study as possible. We are paying the police enough to be entitled to expect a much higher level of performance.

In my time, I have solved two murder cases leading to successful prosecutions. One was the Headless Corpse case about 1953. The police were following all sorts of false leads and had almost given up the case when I wrote two articles in the Star analysing, from the commonsense point of view, what had probably happened. The police had been looking for a foreign murderer, a doctor, they thought, and they were trying to identify the headless body by recourse to Interpol. The dead woman clearly must be a missing tourist.

I pointed out that the spot where the body was discovered (the Anchovy sea caves near Port Antonio) was unlikely to be known by anyone from outside the district, let alone a foreign visitor, and that far from surgical skill being needed to so cleanly sever the head, the murder’s skills probably lay in butchering and banana work. The woman, I guessed was probably of Indian descent. I was right on all counts. Several detectives told me that the case began to come together when the police decided, having nothing better to do, to follow my line of reasoning. They found the murderer, (a butcher and banana-man from Anchovy) identified the victim (his wife, an Indian) and with the forensic help of Professor Harper of the UWI, concluded a sensational case with a conviction.

In the second case the prosecution was hampered by the fact that the murderer was a policeman (Cons George Porter) and I was threatened with jail by the DPP (Huntley Monroe, father of Robotham’s former sidekick, Trevor) unless I could prove my allegations against Porter. I did, even though it meant an exhumation of the murdered man’s body.

Judicial killing or police execution is no answer to murder. They simply provoke more bloodletting. Depriving people of their liberty on suspicion is no answer to the failure of forensic investigation and human intelligence.

In Alcoholics Anonymous they say that doing the same thing over and over in the hope of achieving different results each time is one definition of lunacy.

The value of old men is that we can remind the successor generations of our mistakes and counsel them not to repeat them. We have already wasted so much – so much time, so much energy and treasure and above all, so much lost liberty and so many lives. That is lunacy.

Watching Ideas Burn

Every time we have a problem we are counseled to seek the short term solutions, the draconian laws, the restriction of Liberty in the interest, we are told, of Liberty. That is President Bush’s solution and the solution of every power seeking demagogue through history. Mussolini made the trains run on time, Lee Kwan Yew has not yet figured how to punish the involuntary discharge of anal wind but he has every other orifice covered. We too can lock down the society in the interest of the Gross Domestic Product.

What no one has ever figured out is how to make people accept enslavement. Robotham derides ‘holistic’ solutions, but he clearly hasn’t read a slew of documents from his own intellectual headquarters – the World Bank. After dozens of studies the World Bank has published several books which make it clear that structural change is the only answer to most of our problems – especially including CRIME.

The World Bank is not a Socialist organisation. It is in fact the Colonial Office of Globalised Capitalism. Yet, the Bank says that education, putting children in school and finding ways of keeping them there will not only reduce violence and crime significantly, but also boost the Gross Domestic Product by increments of from 2 percent to 9 percent.

Nothing we have done in our misconceived, unsustainable development has ever managed to produce such returns. We can raise the GDP by education, social welfare and small farm agriculture; programmes of soil conservation and reforestation. The problem: those would look too much like distributive politics, and the patron saints of the bourgeois, Carl Stone and Wilmot Perkins both denounce the unmitigated evil of such an approach.

The real problem with Jamaica? We can read but we don’t; and we can think but we prefer not to.

It really is as simple as that.

Meanwhile, thousands of children are being maimed at this moment by crime, by disease, by hunger and by the poisonous emissions from Riverton City.

Most of our movers and shakers have air-conditioned houses, air-conditioned SUVs, air-conditioned offices and air-conditioned minds. Riverton City Dump is not on their horizons. But take a look at the pictures taken three hours apart on Thursday morning. In the first one nearly a third of Kingston, including Port Bustamante and Norman Manley International Airport have disappeared.

copyright ©John Maxwell


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