Conversations with Archbishop J
Every year, hundreds of citizens are violently killed in Trinidad and Tobago. By last Wednesday we were close to 300 murders for this year. This is a visceral continuation of the spiral in murder underway for many years now. Every citizen should be asking hard questions of the self and of our beloved nation.
In 2008 we crossed the threshold: we had 550 murders that year. Since then we have been hovering between the late 300s and early 500s. In 2018, we were 15th in the nations of the world for high murder rates. This is alarming! Our innocence has been lost, and it is a time for all of us to take stock. We need to ask: “What kind of Trinidad and Tobago do we want to be?”
Have you listened recently to how we speak to each other? We have a fundamental problem of disrespect for human beings in our nation. It seems to be a pervasive force that shapes our interaction in the family, the community, the school, the workplace and the national community. Stop and listen again to the radio shows and other public broadcasts. Are you hearing people upholding basic dignity to each other?
We speak as if we have a murder problem, or a gang problem or a violence problem. All of these may well be true but these are extreme symptoms of a core problem of disrespect among our citizens. A culture of disrespect, discourtesy and disregard has evolved over the years. This culture works on every level of our society.
A gang culture
Being involved in gang intervention in the early 2000s, what became clear to me was that far too many gang ‘wars’ started because someone felt disrespected. This disrespect would be repaid by multiple deaths.
Across the respect/disrespect continuum, there is a deeper challenge. Let’s call it emotional intelligence: the capacity to delay gratification; the capacity to have difficult conversations; and the capacity to disagree without obliterating your opponent.
Notice here this lack is not only referring to those in gangs. It refers to those in media who fuel hate and disrespect, those in churches and mosques and temples, those in the boardroom and those in parliament.
Many years ago working with lieutenants of two different gangs, I stumbled across an incredible discovery. One of them fired off a gun after we had worked out a ceasefire. I challenged him.
He said to me “Fadda, I had to send a message”. I stopped, thought and asked again. “So you fired off the gun to send a message.” “Yes!” he said. “Wait, you broke the ceasefire because you wanted to communicate to him your message”. He was now getting edgy. But I learnt the gun was a tool of communication.
If a young man does not know how to communicate difficult emotions, the gun is the tool of choice. We are dealing with a problem of literacy. We have not taught our people how to have difficult conversations, how to disagree, how to engage others while respecting them as persons and while upholding their human dignity and human rights. Again, this is not a problem of those at the lower rung of the ladder. This is a societal problem.
A gang seeks to increase its turf, to get a better deal for its members, to protect them and ensure they get the best life while expending the least effort, to take care of them if they are in trouble and to support their family if anything goes wrong and they die.
There is no concern for those who are not in the gang, no responsibility for the common good. That is why the leadership is maximum leadership. There is no democracy in a gang. It serves basic human, economic interests. It is an alternative family—it offers identity.
How many levels of our society does this refer to? I have seen police, politicians, religious and business people act like modern, educated versions of gangs. When each citizen tries to maximise freedom while minimising responsibility for the common good, we have the major challenge we face in Trinidad and Tobago today. It is not just that we have gangs, but that we have a gang culture that pervades all levels of society.
We cannot fix the problem of crime until we are ready to fix the problem of exaggerated freedoms that have become a licence plaguing our country. To temper this exaggerated freedom that we have pushed so hard for, we now need an exaggerated responsibility to the common good.
We have elected many governments on the promise that they will fix the crime problem. None has delivered permanent sustainable results. We now need to ask why.
A different model
Malaysia had a similar problem with gangs, drugs and high crime in a multiethnic country, particularly in a specific ethnic community. An economist in Monash Business School decided to look at the problem in depth and found that the problem community had lagged behind significantly in education, housing, earning and thus overall standard and quality of life. Because far too many of them were at the bottom of the ladder without a way out, crime became their vehicle of choice and the gun their tool of communication.
The research pointed out that it was not an ethnic root cause, or a crime problem or a gun or drug problem. At the root was a development problem. There were communities that did not have access to the basic necessities to stimulate their populations to participate in the national economy in a meaningful way.
There was a bipartisan approach in Malaysia. They adopted a different strategy. They drilled down to the fundamentals of the problem and came up with a blueprint for stimulating development of the disadvantaged group in Malaysia. This is a multi-year approach signed off by both leading parties committing millions of dollars to develop one ethnic group of a multiethnic society. The results are encouraging.
High murder rate, drugs and crime affect every citizen. It affects our quality of life. Let us at least be honest with the diagnosis. We have a poverty, a communications and an exaggerated freedom problem in Trinidad and Tobago. Communications not just in spelling, reading and writing, but in giving basic respect to others, even when, or especially when we have very different opinions.
We have a national ecosystem of greed, disrespect, corruption and WIIFM (what’s in it for me?). This is not a gang problem. This is a problem of values and culture. In its heart and root, it is a deeply spiritual problem. We have lost our way. Nothing short of a national conversation and plan committing to common values to facilitate development for those on the margins will solve the challenge we face today.
Each of us has to choose to limit our ‘freedoms’ if we want a society whose DNA will produce peace, harmony and prosperity for all our citizens.
Key Message: We have a poverty, communication and exaggerated freedom problem that is causing a rising murder rate in our country.
Action Step: Participate in the forty days of prayer for life, beginning July 31. Let us pray and act to build a culture of basic respect for life for all citizens.
Scripture Reading: John 10:10