Wednesday, April 6, 2011

We must confront our social malaise

As another family mourns the murder of a loved one, Bermuda mourns as well. This cycle of senseless killings leaves our country wounded, weakened and wary about the future. Wounded because these killings strike at the very essence of what Bermuda once was—a place where such violence was the exceptional, shocking event rather than the far to frequent nightmare it is today. We are weakened because we rely on our reputation for stability to grow our economy; and that reputation gets more soiled with every gunshot fired. We have good cause to be wary about what the future holds for us since there is no obvious solution in sight. But it is an end to this we must seek.

Views about how to reduce violence tend to have two major foci. On the one hand, there is the emphasis on encouraging the police service and the justice system more generally to do more and to ensure they have all the resources to identify, capture and put away those who commit such crimes. On the other hand, the argument is made that we have to better understand, and then fix, the social dynamics involved in placing people in circumstances where violent crime is a likely outcome. It is obvious that these two elements have relevance and appropriate policy must necessarily derive from both. 

Many of us have long simply assumed the upsurge in gun violence is directly connected to the illicit drug trade. In turn this has led to some calls to legalize or at least decriminalize specific prohibited drugs to take the violence out of the equation. Recent information coming out of court proceedings and from the Bermuda Police Service, though, very strongly indicates this violence has less to do with protecting territory or drug deals gone wrong and more to do with personal matters. If this is true, we have a more challenging dynamic to confront. 

Illicit drug dealers are simply business people acting outside of the law—they too need to assess margins, market share and employee satisfaction. The added complication they face is the cat and mouse game with law enforcement: the possibility of great reward is juxtaposed with the risk they could do some serious time in prison. Violence is not an inherent characteristic of this trade and anyone around in the 1970s knows this.  Indeed most, if not all drug dealers would no doubt be content to ply their trade profitably away from the light of public scrutiny and without violence.

How then do we make sense of killings that come out of a personal vendetta or because of some disrespect shown? And more importantly, what do we do about it? It is difficult to fathom someone willing to take another life because of an insult and then be prepared to spend the next twenty years in prison because of this. But as a young friend patiently explained to me recently, we have a critical mass of young people who simply live for the here and now, who have no expectation they will even reach 30 years of age, whose entire world is shaped by the limited sphere in which they move, and who see no way out. For them, their social standing is enhanced by the acts they commit to ensure “enough respect.” These young people reject much of what we embrace and take for granted: our rules, our political elites, our way of life. And we fail to connect with them today.

It is this alienation that needs to be addressed. We must use our combined efforts to find ways to have meaningful dialogues with young people who now feel they have been discarded by us and are apart from society. The police must certainly continue their role to act decisively on those who commit violent acts but, regrettably, their role is always after the fact. 

When we act decisively to confront the social malaise coming out of the impoverished neighbourhoods that all too often provided the breeding ground for violence we will have made progress.  This is one of our greatest challenges today. It is a challenge where failure cannot be an option.

1 comment:

  1. Walton, I fully agree that we need to connect with our young men. The challenge, as you point out, is how. I sense the urgency, but time is slipping away, and yes, failure is not an option!