Crime: a disease

September 27, 2020

The first recorded act of infamy was the murder of Abel at the hands of Cain, his brother. Crime is as old as humankind itself. It shall be a part thereof till the hereafter. It is how we mould our...

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The first recorded act of infamy was the murder of Abel at the hands of Cain, his brother. Crime is as old as humankind itself. It shall be a part thereof till the hereafter. It is how we mould our lives to take precautions and the state fulfils its constitutional obligation of providing security that can be a defining aspect of a comparatively safer life.

Crime, as we see it, might range from a teenager snatching a purse or a cellphone, to a public office-holder siphoning off billions; a fractured bone in a street brawl or a quiet young individual murdering his family members. There is no single definition that can encapsulate crime in its entity.

Over the last decades, the majority of countries have achieved remarkable progress in public health. The single contributing factor has been the identification of diseases and measures to prevent the same. Conversely, in the same time frame, public safety has deteriorated due to an alarming surge in crime rate.

In the developed world, researchers and specialists now place crime in the category of a disease; a contagious one. They strongly advocate the same tools and measures used to avoid a contagious disease. The prevalent pandemic has taught us the virtues of precautionary measures. We undertake what, over time, feel like oppressive precautionary compulsions. We do so keeping in mind the far dangerous consequences of not doing the same.

In ‘The Annals of Imperial Rome’, Tacitus aptly notes: “The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws”. The key to combat crime is not more laws but an effective, fast-track and even-handed enforcement of the existing criminal procedure and anti-terrorism code. Ayn Rand writes in ‘Atlas Shrugged’: “Just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted and you create a nation of law-breakers and then you cash in on the guilt”.

Pakistan’s institutions and enforcing mechanisms are totally corrupted and compromised. The fallout remains a nation encouraged to become law-breakers. This phenomenon is epitomized from the decades of brutal bloodshed in Karachi to its reduction to a landfill. Another barometer, if it does not burn out, to gauge our law-breaking tendencies is the jaywalkers and the traffic on our streets.

The British left us with an efficient police system ably assisted by an effective CID. Their success was due to, apart from total absence of political interference, personnel consisting of locals in the policed area. They knew the area and the people within like the back of their hand. Our police force selection itself has remained plagued with political and monetary considerations since decades. Police officers were deployed courtesy their political patronage; their call of duty to serve their masters only. Crime galore was the logical outcome.

Dr Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist, apart from working with the Global Program on AIDS, covered 40 refugee camps in Somalia for three years. He was one of six doctors looking after over a million people. The major threat to these people was an outbreak of cholera and the onset of tuberculosis, both highly infectious diseases. The prevention / containment efforts were dependent on updated data and strictly followed preventive measures. The resulting effort bore admirable results.

Back in Chicago, the then murder capital of the US, Dr Slutkin decided to use his experience to prevent crime. Seeing the crime related data, Dr Slutkin’s experience led him to the conclusion that, “Epidemic curves are the same (as crime), the clustering. In fact, one event leads to another, which is diagnostic of a contagious process. Flu causes more flu, colds more colds and violence causes more violence. Behavior is formed by modeling and copying”.

Dr Slutkin’s prevention strategy was based on: interrupting transmission, preventing future spread and changing group norms. He hired locals, dubbed ‘violence interrupters’ to patrol the streets, meeting people and developing links. Their goal was to prevent a violent act. In 2000, Dr Slutkin launched ‘Cure Violence’ in Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood. The first year saw a drop of 67 percent in homicides alone. The US department of Justice found a drop of 73 percent in shootings and killings at certain crime hotspots.

Today, Cure Violence is part of the public health department of University of Illinois. It operates successfully in 13 Chicago neighborhoods. The success of the program has seen it spreading successfully to Baltimore, Los Angeles and New York. Cure Violence has also helped countries in Latin America, Middle East and the Caribbean Islands to adopt effective community based public safety solutions.

In Pakistan, unfortunately, each issue invariably morphs into a political, provincial, sectarian or gender based sparring match. Lost in between is the aim of tackling the menace which metastasizes due to this infighting. Whatever knee jerk reactions we can muster are testament to a total void of administrative ability and politicized, corrupt institutions. This leads to the prime minister or chief ministers ‘taking notice’, a euphemism for the gaping administrative void, of an issue that should essentially have been the mandated assignment of a SHO or municipal official.

As it is, cleaning Karachi nullahs, the responsibility of a municipal officer, has the prime minister, chief justice and chief of army staff pooling their precious time and resources. They try to ensure what now stands practically undoable due to decades’ long criminal connivance of state institutions and the apathy of the people. We did not arrive at this juncture in a single day or due to the criminal neglect of an individual.

The unchallenged criminal default of our rulers has been ably abetted by us, the masses. This has created mafias that spawned illegal buildings, encroachments, crime and a freefall in the health, education and social service sectors. All this, yet we all danced, as if drugged, to the fiddle of all the Neros that ruled the roost for decades. Unfortunately, each one of us is culpable as to where we stand today as a state and society.

Coming back to crime, a major contributing factor has been the failure of our criminal justice system. The still-at-large Abid, the main accused in the recent despicable act, was on a crime spree since 2014 despite being named, involved and apprehended in similar cases. The frequent unnerving revelation that a finally (after public outcry) punished criminal had been let off repeatedly leads to mob retributive justice and vigilantism. This is a stark reflection of the total erosion of public faith in the state and its law-enforcing institutions.

Mark Twain famously said: “A crime persevered in a thousand centuries ceases to be a crime, and becomes a virtue. This is the law of custom, and custom supersedes all other forms of law”. A thousand centuries seems overly stretched even for those times. In this age of the all-encompassing negativity bias, patronized crime becomes a ‘necessity’ and a ‘right’ in no time. An example all of us face daily here; corruption, a vice, has become the only ‘virtue’ that gets things done.

We have to establish a community that predicts and prevents crime rather than being overwhelmed by a deluge in a compromised system. The media can play a crucial role in educating the people by means which resonate with them. Our production houses should take a break from perpetual love troikas and saas /bahu manipulations. Given their capabilities and following they should produce content that educates people and propagates the virtues of good.

Apart from individual precautions, a strong local government system can go a long way in helping combat crime by preventive measures and community policing. As it is, our ‘qaideen’ are loath to devolve power to the grassroots for obvious reasons. It is crucially important that we do not wait for atrocious acts to jolt us out of our stupor. We have to modulate our lives and stand up against mafias, crimes and their patrons on a daily basis. Only then can we ensure a system that does not glorify or protect criminals.

The writer is a freelance contributor.


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