The failed bank robbery

The name of the third deadly sin rolled off many a commentator’s tongue following the abortive robbery on Republic Bank last Tuesday. After all the talk about poverty and unemployment being the nursemaids of criminal behaviour, here were two of the perpetrators in regular employment earning monthly salaries. Furthermore, one of them, Elton Wray, who was shot dead at the scene, had received a government scholarship and had qualified as an agronomist in China. Back home he worked for the National Agriculture Research and Extension Institute in Mon Repos. There was no dearth of opportunities in his chosen field of endeavour, the pundits said, so the only explanation that might explain his actions was greed.

Some were of the view that this might be an atypical case, since how many of our graduates from middle class homes have been known to take up armed robbery as a means of supplementing their income? However, it should be said that the nature of the crime is deceiving everyone. There are many graduates and others from middle class homes or otherwise in responsible jobs earning steady incomes who are guilty of criminal activity; in their case it is called white collar crime. Unfortunately, some government officers too are hardly exempt from criminal acts and in particular, are no strangers to venality. Presumably if our failed armed bandits had been able to access money illicitly by some less violent route, they may well have chosen that option instead.

While owing to its singularity everyone concentrates on this particular case, it tends to be forgotten that Elton Wray and his associates made their plans in what is no longer a rule-governed society. From the traffic policeman on the road to the private sector, to the not so sequestered corridors of power, adherence to the law and respect for the intrinsic humanity of others are not much in evidence. In a society where anything goes there will be all kinds of aberrations, and in that sense, Tuesday’s bandits are but a symptom of a more fundamental breakdown in our small universe.

Not that that excuses what they did; everyone has to take responsibility for their own actions, and the three whose identities are known were adults, not children. What it does do is explain the context in which they made their decisions, since it is far more likely that an individual lacking a personal ethical lodestar will proceed in a criminal direction when he lives in a moral vacuum, socially speaking, than if he was constrained by a larger ethical framework.

In addition, too, the world we live in is a far cry from the one our grandparents knew, where you trusted your neighbours and in many cases could leave your front door unlocked when you went out. Apart from anything else, there was no television – only radio – bicycles were the preferred mode of transportation, and books could be found even in quite simple homes. Nowadays we are fully exposed to the developed world and its consumerism; most of us have family members living abroad with whom we are in direct contact; everyone wants a car; and we are as hooked on the electronic gadgetry and mobile phones of the twenty-first century as any New Yorker.

In other words, we are no longer isolated; we are a tiny corner of the globalized world, and have imbibed its material values indiscriminately. The developed world for the most part, owing to its size, strength of institutions and variety in terms of popular views, can bring to bear some countervailing pressures which keep most officials and the majority of citizens on the straight and narrow, but here that is left to the churches. The various faiths, however, have never come together to agree to plug a common line in unison on a few basics relating to political and social ethics. As for everyone else, with some exceptions, the majority of local homilies, especially those emanating from the highest political echelons, are nothing but hot air.  It is true that we have the beginnings of a civil society stirring, whose voice is being heard at some level, but it is still a long way from developing the kind of clout its counterparts in the north possess.

Materialism certainly breeds greed, but it also breeds something else, namely, a need for instant gratification. And that, it seems, is what infected Elton Wray at least, since he was reported last week as wanting money so he could visit his girlfriend in the United States. This syndrome which is widespread here among the young – and not so young ‒ has been correctly associated with the absence of a work ethic, a virtue, it might be added that is usually acquired in school.

There were some who mused after the failed robbery that there must be something wrong with our education system, asking if schools did not build character any longer? The short answer to that question would be no. Schools reflect the larger society, and with the absence of a disciplinary scaffolding, the delinquent proclivities of some teachers, the outrageous behaviour of some parents who physically assault teachers, children taking weapons to school, the reported appearance of gangs in a few places, plus all the other myriad problems, they are hardly likely to make much headway teaching moral precepts – whatever these are interpreted to be. In addition, the school cannot compete against the home; it will lose.

All that can be said is that in situations where the home and school are working in tandem, any number of things can theoretically be achieved. It is just that in many instances, that is not what obtains.

The politicians of all sides love to pontificate about the rule of law. The citizenry is still waiting for that to be instituted, since what the parties say and what they do are totally unrelated. One cannot help but feel, however, that creating a rule-governed society in the larger sense has to start at the top, meaning the politicians have to set the example personally, and be seen to root out corruption and illegality. If the functionary at the top is unprincipled then the person at the bottom will have no compunction about indulging in robbery or breaking the rules. If the rule of law returned, it would have spin-off effects eventually in other departments of life, not just the public, but the private as well.

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