Fear of crime

The word angst derives from the German meaning fear, but signifying something a lot more than simple fear.  It is one of those words which English has commandeered from another language – this particular hijacking occurring for the first time in the 1920s – because English had no one word of its own to describe the experience. Angst is not simply fear or anxiety. It is typically a feeling of deep and pervasive anxiety, even dread, which is unfocused and concerns the human condition or the state of things in general.

Who can doubt that angst-ridden describes Guyana today? A generalized feeling of deep anxiety, not to say dread, pervades society. At the present time, the feeling is sharply concentrated in the growing fear of crime. Constant, barefaced, brutal crimes have begun to traumatize those who might be classified as middle class – or, to be more precise, those who live in reasonably good homes and possess cars. The unending, seemingly unstoppable series of over-publicised, completely callous crimes is leading to continual fear for one’s personal safety and the safety of family and friends. Appalled, feeling helpless, we wait to hear news of the next attack while hoping with hardly any hope for a successful official response.

I specify the middle class but the angst, of course, spreads wider and deeper, is more complicated and goes well beyond fear of crime. Another column will be necessary to define these deeper aspects of angst in society. For now I confine the subject to the dread of criminal activity.

The current situation is dangerous. Fear is a terrible teacher in the halls of democracy and civil rights. By far the most powerful exposition in political philosophy of the ‘need’ for ruthless dictatorship is contained in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. And the key to that great, dark book is fear. “Fear and I were born twins,” Hobbes wrote about himself. And, he warned, when men live “without a common Power to keep them all in awe,” then in such a vacuum there will be “no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and, which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The strong arm of power is welcomed with a sigh of relief. So in the end for ordinary men and women safety comes before democracy and human rights. A deplorable conclusion, no doubt, but something to ponder as any society faces what seems to be a growing breakdown in law and order.

In a passage which I think perfectly captures the danger which a democratic society faces when ever-increasing threats to life and security plague society, that great West Indian-American, Alexander Hamilton, in Chapter No. VIII of The Federalist, which he wrote in November 1787, had this to say:

“Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.”

Alexander Hamilton was referring to the external threats of war. But what is violent crime running out of control but internal war? And in the grip of fear even the most liberty-loving will be all too inclined to condone or even endorse a stringency among law-givers which in normal circumstances they would certainly condemn.

The sooner authority recaptures the initiative in dealing not only with the violent criminals but also with spreading lawlessness, minor and major, the sooner democracy as well as safety will be secured.

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