Reclaiming society from ‘lawlessness’

A generation ago, every child growing up in Guyana knew, long before they could spell them, what the words ‘lawless’ and ‘watless’ (‘worthless’) meant. Frisky school children outside a cake shop might earn a sanction for ‘lawless’ behaviour from a passing matron. A youngster given to tricks and pranks would be dismissed as ‘watless’ by his elders or even his peers. ‘Lawlessness’ was behaviour by any individual or group that was deemed socially unacceptable − you still hear the term now. There was, as in any society, an unwritten code of dos and don’ts, a powerful and pervasive consensus on what was acceptable and what was not. This was no social idyll however. Crime, violence and alcohol abuse were all significant problems. The difference, perhaps, is that then, social sanction and disapproval (as well as a police force, judiciary and legal system that functioned a little better) helped to keep these problems in check. Being ‘lawless’ or ‘watless’ denoted a lapse in standards, an aberration from the norm. What has changed?

In a chapter entitled ‘The Power of Context’, Malcolm Gladwell (in The Tipping Point) describes an incident in 1984 when a New Yorker shot four teenagers on a subway train who were “horsing around” and who demanded money from him. He was “treated as a hero” and acquitted on charges of attempted assault and murder. Gladwell reminds us that, in the 1980s, New York City routinely recorded over 2000 murders and half a million “serious felonies” a year. It was a city “in the grip of one of the worst crime epidemics in history.” Furthermore, New York subways were filthy, covered in graffiti and garbage and a haven for vagrants, petty criminals and ne’er do wells. Fare dodging was common practice. Yet, after 1990, the crime rate declined, sharply. Why?

Crime, and particularly uncontrollable crime, argues Gladwell, is “the inevitable result of disorder.” This is the Broken Windows theory: if a window is broken and left unrepaired, passersby will conclude that no one cares and that no one is in charge. More windows will be broken and, soon, the “sense of anarchy” will ripple forth to neighbouring buildings and then neighbouring streets. In the mid-1980s, a criminologist (and architect of this theory) was hired by the New York Transit Authority. Following his advice, the subway system was cleaned and overhauled, line by line, train by train. A few years later, William Bratton, the new head of the transit police, decided to focus on fare dodgers. Fare dodgers were arrested, charged and their criminal records were checked. A few years later, Bratton was hired to head the New York City Police Department. He applied the same strategies city-wide targeting public drunks and litter bugs and punishing other minor transgressions: If, in his words, “you peed in the street, you were going to jail.” It worked. Crime, including serious crime, declined.

Reading the local papers daily, it is easy to form an impression of Guyanese as people who do little besides kill, maim and rob each other with abandon. This is not the case. But we are drifting perilously close to this caricature. A recent UN report (‘Crime, Violence and Development: trends, costs and policy options in the Caribbean: 2007) notes that murder rates in the Caribbean, at 30 per 100,000 per population, are higher than for any other region in the world. It pinpoints drug trafficking, kidnapping and corruption as the major forms of organised crime affecting the region. Worldwide, poor countries, with large populations of young men have the highest murder rates. In the Caribbean, crime-reduction strategies show an “over-reliance on criminal justice” and tend to neglect crime prevention strategies such as environmental design. These have “significant potential to generate rapid decreases in property crime and some forms of inter-personal violence.”

Our behaviour, individually and collectively, is inextricably linked to our environment and our environment leaves a great deal to be desired. Georgetown is rubbish-strewn, rodent-infested and prone to flooding. Squatters and pavement vendors proliferate. The prevailing anarchy is most apparent in our car culture: drivers ignore road signs (where these still exist), minibuses stop at random to deposit and collect passengers, pedestrians walk anywhere at any time and other minor traffic violations occur routinely. Most of us barely register each little infringement any more. Collectively, they render our roads, our public spaces and even some of our public events, a national disgrace.

Money, the principal ingredient in most remedies, is in short supply. We are poor. We are not, however, helpless. If we have the will as a society, the energy and the patience, we can reclaim the lost ground. Put bluntly, it needs to become socially unacceptable again to infringe the law − whether it be peeing in public, dodging a few taxes, bribing an official or sticking a knife into someone whom you happen to disagree with. We need to learn to respect each other again, in the way we speak to each other, drive on the roads, handle our disagreements. We need to do this, step by step, inch by inch − or suffer the consequences.