Today, I write not about advertising, but an issue of national importance, that of our out of control crime situation. I am very tired of hearing people sitting back and throwing responsibility for taming this wild beast towards the government. This approach has not worked and will never work. A different approach is needed, thus my piece,
A Stitch in Time about Crime
Many of us recognise the wisdom of the old. When those of the previous era gave us a warning, too often, we who did not take heed, would utter the refrain, “I shoulda listen.” The elders often used wise sayings when speaking to us in order to put a big issue into a simplified form, helping us understand a situation better so that we could navigate through it more knowingly. One such saying is “Prevention is better than cure.” This cautionary line of advice can be applied to the crime situation, both blue collar and white collar, plaguing Trinidad and Tobago.
Far too often we hear cries that the government has to deal with crime, primarily the murder rate. Our citizenry wrongly puts the entire responsibility in the hands of our government (present and past). Over the years, to combat the scourge, we have changed governments, initiated the Crime Stopper Programme, implemented joint police and army patrols, increased our police force, used high tech aerial surveillance (the blimp), installed CCTV around the capital, amended the law, have had days of prayer for the nation, a state of emergency, among many other strategies, to arrest the situation, yet still, all of these efforts are like a Band Aid placed over a gaping wound. Criminal activity continues to rise and there seems to be no way of stopping it. This says to me that we, citizens and government, are not thinking correctly in terms of a solution.
Like the elders, I will simplify the situation so that we can understand the problem before attempting to find the solution. Imagine that you have a precious item in your yard and you put up a ten-foot wall to keep out the thieves. A thief, wanting your item, gets an eleven-foot ladder to achieve his goal. To prevent yourself from losing more items, you then make your wall twelve feet high. A determined thief will obtain a thirteen-foot ladder and still gets into your yard. This is basically the nature of our problem. The criminal mind is clever and adapts to surmount every obstacle. Let us now change the scenario a little. Imagine you have that same precious item in your yard, you have no wall and the person passing in the road has no desire to interfere with that which is not his. Your precious item will remain yours simply because of the mindset of that other individual. This was basically how our society was, in a general sense. The mindset has changed so we can therefore take the stance that our fight against crime should be more of a psychological one.
Having established the true nature of the problem, the next step is to examine the cause. Many in our society are fixated on the end result instead of the reason for our social troubles. Our seniors speak of living at a time when Trinidad and Tobago was more peaceful and there was greater respect for our fellowmen. This was as a result of the social institutions that were instrumental to the general mores of that era. As our society advanced, we moved away from these institutions, yet still we expect the same results that they gave. Unfortunately, the universe does not work that way. According to the old people, “What we sow is what we reap.”
So what are these “social institutions” that we no longer adhere to? I will identify three that I think significantly affect our social being. Let us begin with Corporal Punishment. Somewhere around the late 80’s to early 90’s we began to adopt the North American viewpoint on corporal punishment. Deemed archaic and brutal to children, it was removed from our schools. Unfortunately, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater as no system was put in place to retain discipline in the classroom or for developing minds to get a sense of consequence for their actions. Teachers became powerless and children free to be wayward. At one time when a teacher disciplined the child, the parent, knowing the importance of the teacher to the child’s life and future, took the side of the teacher, or if the parent disagreed with the method of punishment, that parent would speak with the teacher privately about it. With the Ministry of Education’s outlawing of corporal punishment, parents mistook it to mean any sort of disciplinary action. So they charged into the school and abused the teacher for reasons within the right of the teacher, such as the confiscation of a cell phone because it was being used during class time, or for disciplining the child for wearing clothing that was not in accordance with the school’s guideline. The parents endorsed the child’s breaking of the school’s law by taking their side and abusing the teacher in the presence of the child. These children then grew up having no respect for authority or law. As adults with no foundation of discipline, when they commit the most heinous of crimes, we, the same ones who did not want them punished as children, call them sick animals as though their behavior materialised out of thin air.
Another “social institution” is the house of worship. The fundamental purpose of religion is to instruct us on the personal laws which should govern how we live. A community where individuals are ruled by personal law generally guarantees a harmonious coexistence. Unfortunately, many of us began to see “the church” as corrupt or an instrument of control by the former colonial powers. We began to adopt the statement, “I believe in God. I don’t believe in religion.” The irony of this statement is that, the people who said this, spent their formative years in religion and were instilled with the personal laws it dictates. They, however, now not believing in religion, do not have their children go to the house of worship, so the offspring are left without the foundation that they got.
The third “social institution” was Common Entrance. This system was an early lesson for the primary school child to understand the importance of setting goals, doing work and the feeling fulfillment when objectives are achieved. For those who were not successful at the Common Entrance Examination which allowed them to move on to secondary school, they were kept in standard 5 and given at least another opportunity to write the examination the following year. If all chances to re-write the examination were exhausted, the child stayed in the primary school and went into the post primary class. As they were not mentally prepared for the level of work found at the secondary schools, they were retained and provided with apt schooling that would still prepare them for the future. For some reason, we felt that this model was too stressful for the children and removed it, letting them pass through the system freely. A child who was among the first to sit the examination under the new system, when asked by a friend of my mother on his performance, he replied, “If I pass, I pass. If I fail, I pass.” From that impressionable age, this young mind understood that he had no need to apply himself in order to go forward. The reality today is that many children who are not mentally ready for secondary school are being admitted. With insufficient academic fortitude, they struggle through and find non-academic activities to occupy their school days, frustrating the teachers and administration. They leave without qualifications and enter a society unable to gain meaningful employment. What is the outcome? As the old people would say, “The Devil finds work for idle hands.”
Returning to the children who were unable to advance to the secondary school level, in a number of cases, it was the child’s economic circumstances or living environment that caused their poor academic performance. Not wanting to cast these children aside, the Youth Development and Apprenticeship Centres (formerly Youth Camps) were introduced in the 1960’s for adolescents. There were eventually four in Trinidad and one in Tobago where the students were in residence for two years, away from the negative home environment, so that they could focus on the trade they were learning. At these institutions, along with their classwork, they learned to have discipline and were prepared for life in the workplace and the national community. There were many students passing through the Youth Development and Apprenticeship Centres who had the potential to become criminals, but because of the opportunity given to them, and being away from the negative home environment, they took a different and better course in life. A few decades ago, these institutions were either closed or had their operational style changed. This decision may have been because of the high costs of running these institutions, however, I question if such a move was worth the aftermath. American Novelist and intellectual Mark Twain touched on such a mistake saying, “Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain on one end you lose at the other.” So now, we spend much more money on security measures, which, as mentioned before, have little effect on the problem.
From my examples, it is obvious that focus on our children is a major factor in dealing with the crime problem. Ancient Roman poet Virgil said, “As the twig is bent so is the tree inclined.” This speaks about the path we take in life. The lessons we learn early, when we are twigs, will impact our future. So we must all, as a community, think of the lessons we teach our children. We are the ones who allow our children to roam the streets on their own at night, not the government. We give our children high tech toys without applying any filters or supervising them, leaving them exposed to many influences they should not be experiencing as yet. It is us who are not teaching our children to value themselves, to have pride despite their situation. We are the ones teaching our young ones to put money above everything else. It is our job to guide our children in the right direction, not the government. We must realise that these children will grow up to become employed in the protective services or sit in government. They will be working at the banks, the judiciary, as teachers and other positions of great responsibility. They will also be responsible for taking care of us in our old age. We need to positively shape the minds of our future adults.
Having explored some causes of the problem, I now propose a few measures to get closer to a solution:
- Reestablish the Youth Development and Apprenticeship Centres with the in-residence system. Yes, it costs a significant amount, however, it would impact positively on society.
- Introduce a system in the primary and secondary schools where the children regain respect for authority and an understanding that there are consequences for their actions.
- Reevaluation of the education system is needed as the “easy flow through” method that exists is failing our children, creating a mass output of underachievers.
- Any parent who assaults a teacher should be charged and placed before the courts. Parents need to learn how to address any problem at the school with their child in a rational manner.
- The government should introduce a nighttime curfew for children under the age of 18. At night, any child under this age must be accompanied by an adult. The parents of any child found outdoors during the curfew hours should be charged.
- Persons in the entertainment industry and the media should think carefully about the material they produce and how it may affect the young and those with weak minds. It is a fact that whatever enters the mind affects behavior, so although we enjoy freedom of expression, how the material presented to the public may affect the psyche should always be considered. You need to recognise that entertainers and the media are the ones who influence the public’s taste, style, lingo, fears, ambitions, awareness, consciousness, patriotism, basically, the ethos. It is really you who have the greatest tools that can fix our society. Unfortunately, the majority in these fields are unaware of the positive power that they wield. Yours is not just a job. Your role is to nourish our souls.
- Parents must instruct children on personal law; Do not steal. Do not kill. Love your neighbour. Honour your father and mother. Do to others as you would want them to do to you. Once our children grow up with a moral compass, in future our crime problems will dramatically lessen.
- Even though a parent can provide the child with anything, the offspring should not be given everything. The young need to learn about delayed satisfaction instead of instant gratification. They need to learn about working hard to earn reward.
- We need to let children be children. We must be vigilant once more in protecting their innocence, especially in this age of technology. Too often we allow our children to be exposed to material of a mature content, be it movies or games featuring graphic violence or adult situations. We also dress them like miniature grown-ups, with all the sexiness they should not be displaying at this time of their lives. Rites of passage have become skewed and like a “force ripe” mango that matures too quickly and is no good as a result, we are not allowing our children to develop at a natural pace, thus, we have children exploring adventures that they are not mentally ready to process; a definite recipe for disaster.
- Parents who blindly take the side of their child in any situation encourage that child to believe that they can get away with anything. They then behave without care for others. Instead, the adult should listen to all sides of the story before making judgement.
- We need to encourage our children to participate in organised sport or cultural activities. Both provide many life lessons for the young.
Now, there is no single answer to solving the morass. It is a complex situation. I am only presenting an angle, one which I think is a major factor. Definitely the government needs to arrest the immediate situation, however, we cannot ignore our responsibility in the fight against crime and the power that we have in making a great difference to the future. Once we instill a moral compass in our children, our crime problem will lessen and it will not be the out of control entity that it is today. No government in the world is supposed to deal with the level of waywardness that we are experiencing. They are to deal with those individuals that exist outside of the perimeter of the social mores. In other words, the government’s job is to deal with the delinquents. Our job is to prevent our children from becoming delinquent. Prevention is indeed better than cure.