Monday, July 19, 2010

The roots of The Bahamas' crime epidemic

The roots of our crime epidemic
Tribune News Editor:

BAHAMIANS are afraid. A recently circulated questionnaire revealed a public "deeply troubled" by the explosion of crime and violence in society.

Crime has been unacceptably high for decades, but over the past few years it has reached unprecedented levels. Many now say they feel like prisoners in their own homes, afraid of being attacked each time they step outside.

As people become increasingly concerned about their safety, calls have mounted for more serious measures to be taken.

Pro-hanging marches have become a common occurrence, and the vast majority of those polled said they believe some form of intervention by foreign law enforcement agencies is now necessary. There have even been murmurs of support for vigilante justice in the face of what is seen as an ineffective judicial system.

Our political class and some senior police officers would have us believe it's not as bad as all that. Admitting that crime is at an all-time high, they say the public perception of danger is nevertheless exaggerated; fear of crime is worse than crime itself. Even if this were true, it is difficult to understand why heightened alarm is in itself a bad thing (except, of course for the reputations of those charged with keeping the public safe). It stands to reason that the more fearful I am - or at least, the more alert and aware - the more likely I am to remain alive and unharmed.

In any case, the newly-released Report on Crime: Root Causes of Crime - an intensive study three years in the making - would seem to contradict this politically convenient narrative. It suggests crime and violence are not only perpetuated at the fringes of society as we have been repeatedly told, but fester at the very core of who we are as a people.

Led by eminent psychologist Dr David Allen, the research team repeated the approach used by the medical journal Lancet in its 1986 report on the cocaine epidemic in the Bahamas. In addition to conducting a series of confidential interviews, the research team organised focus groups consisting of:

* Families of murder victims,

* Those involved in programmes for students guilty of violent or disorderly behaviour,

* Chronic drug addicts,

* Troubled teenagers and parents,

* Public and private psychotherapy groups,

* Church groups,

* Individuals from violent neighbourhoods

The results indicated five primary causes of crime and violence in the Bahamas:

Chronic Violent

Drug Syndrome

The report noted that the Bahamas was the first country outside South America to experience a national crack cocaine addiction problem.

It said: "The chronic violent drug syndrome (CVDS) is the continuing devastating blow delivered to our country by the 1980s cocaine epidemic", noting that similar syndromes exist in Mexico, Colombia, Jamaica, and some US cities including Miami and Washington DC.

CVDS encourages serious crime in a number of ways, primarily through the violence and executions attendant upon the creation and maintenance of drug trafficking empires, "creating fear and panic among the public and empowering the drug barons in turf wars," the study said.

The syndrome also leads to increasing numbers of drug addicts, two thirds of whom are involved in multiple crimes, according to the research. "In and out of prison, these persons are cognitively impaired and find it hard to hold down a job," the study said.

It added that although the rate of new crack addictions does not seem to be increasing at the moment, there is a widespread and growing marijuana epidemic among children age 10 through adolescence. "This destroys educational potential since the brain is not fully developed until the mid-20s."

The study notes that the proliferation of firearms, both legal and illegal, is also a symptom of CVDS. "Guns and drugs go together. Young men tell me that getting a gun is easier than going to the mall," Dr Allen said.

This leads to murder becoming common and life being considered cheap. The drug business is by nature a "kill or be killed" existence and cultivating a dangerous reputation is both a survival tactic in a highly armed society and the primary means of getting ahead in the world.

One reaction to this is the formulation of gangs, which men and women - whether involved in the drug business or not - join for "affirmation, safety, protection, connection and empowerment".

Of course, in such an atmosphere the general work ethic and thereby the concept of personal property eventually cease to have any meaning. "With a gun, what is yours is mine. With a gun even if you lose the dice game, you still win," Dr Allen said.

As a consequence, regular citizens begin to live in fear and therefore decide to seek gun licenses.

The crack cocaine epidemic has also laid siege to the nuclear family in the Bahamas as it engulfs parents, leaving children to fend largely for themselves - particularly in terms of the formation of the ethical dimension of their character. Children remain "un-bonded and lack habilitation and social skills. There is no motivation for education in the home," the study said.

All this leads to sprees of violent crime which are not confined to any sector of society, as "the gun is the law in the drug world".


Unsurprising considering the consequences of CVDS, the researchers interviewed numerous Bahamians whose immediate response to becoming angry was to talk about killing, poisoning or suicide. This applied to one third of those interviewed, some of whom came from "respectable families".

"We have an anger problem in our midst," the report concluded, adding the frightening assertion that this often renders individuals literally unable to stop themselves from committing violent acts.

Dr Allen explained that poor childhood conditioning can lead to a society in which when individuals feel wounded, "instead of doing our grief work, we give over to destructive anger and shame, leading to resentment, bitterness, hardness of heart and finally grievance. At the grievance point we enter the 'blind spot'.

"My work shows we become possessed by evil or negative energy. Young men who have committed murder or extreme violence describe being taken over by a negative force. . . One man told me, 'All of a sudden I could not stop stabbing him. Looking back, I felt something was controlling me'."

While any explanation of individual behaviour which eliminates personal responsibility from the equation should be approached with extreme caution, the research team behind the study make a strong case for the argument that many young offenders have at least a diminished responsibility, as their behaviour is to some extend governed by factors beyond their control.

The study explained that anger causes diffuse physiological arousal (DPA) - the heart rate increases, blood pressure rises and the pulse quickens. "Because of the intimate connection of the heart to the brain, when the pulse rises 10 per cent above normal, the IQ drops 20 to 30 points," it said.

In addition, a person who lacks appropriate strategies for dealing with anger often suffers from alexithymia, or an inability to express feelings or strong emotions.

"If a person cannot express 'I am angry' or 'I am hurt' they will act it out. For example, a young man who beat a woman said he wanted her to feel what he was feeling. When asked what he was feeling, he said, 'I don't know'," the study noted.

Economic downturn

Men, the study contends, derive a great deal of their self-esteem from their employment.

"Men without work become angry at their wife or girlfriend and the children suffer. Some persons respond by a wish to die (suicide). Although there is no direct causal connection between poverty and crime, there is a clear connection between the loss of money or status and increased rage or suicidal ideation," it said, noting the case of a local woman who said that after recently losing his job, her boyfriend kept a hangman's noose in the bedroom, telling her he could no longer afford to give her what she wanted, "so when the time was right, he would hang himself".

The study added: "Young girls make themselves available to older men in a form of prostitution which is becoming increasingly common. This is seen as an acceptable way to pay for education or family bills, eg, cable, electricity and water".

Affects of child abuse

In an Insight article published last year, Dr Allen said his work over the years has revealed that child abuse is alarmingly widespread in this country.

The study notes that nearly all troubled children are victims of some type of abuse, especially physical and sexual abuse.


The study noted that on average, each victim of violence has a "sociophile" of 100 people, including family members, friends, neighbours, et cetera, who are in turn traumatised by the victim's trauma. If one pauses to consider the thousands of violent crimes perpetuated in this country on an annual basis, the number of affected persons is revealed to be truly staggering.

The symptoms of trauma include several which can lead to yet more violent crime, such as:

* Anger and a need for revenge. Dr Allen tells of a woman who rushed into a local shelter wielding a machete and saying someone had just killed her brother. "Because her brother was the supporter of the family and acted like the father she felt obligated to kill his murderer," he explained. Had it not been for the intervention of a member of the research team, the woman might have become a murderer herself.

* Fear of being alone. This often drives young people into the waiting arms of gangs. One young boy interviewed as part of the study said a friend of his was killed because he was alone. "He should have been with his boys," the young man said.

* Magical thinking. Dr Allen said a young boy told him: "If you get stabbed, just hold your chest and you will not die. My friend did it and he lived."

* Short life expectancy. A group of 12 to 15 year-olds told the research team they did not expect to live to be 25 or 30, because they know someone who was killed.

* Glorification of violence. A 15-year-old who stabbed another boy said violence is cool. "If you kill you get stripes and you will only spend six months in jail," he said.

* Suicidal tendencies. When a young person committed suicide, friends said the person was better off, and they wish they could do the same.

* Poor cognitive skills, disinterest in school, inability to concentrates and poor impulse controls. This leads to fights and stabbings, the study found.


According to Dr Allen and his team, what the Bahamas must do is replace this culture of violence and destruction with one of "life and hope". In light of the formidable obstacles to such a transition outlined in the study, this is by no means an easy task.

Dr Allen suggests that we need to develop leaders in all segments of this community; individuals who "absorb chaos, exude calm and instill hope".

He added: "Studies show that child abuse can be greatly reduced by neighbourhood walkarounds. If every church adopted the community around their church, and did weekly walkabouts they would observe child abuse, neglect and other crimes in the making. This is a powerful crime prevention process. Using this methodology, since there is a church on every corner, we could revolutionise the Bahamas in three years."

Dr Allen also recommended that we teach people the skills necessary to deal with anger and trauma peacefully and constructively, beginning with simple steps like dealing with provocation by slow breathing and visualisation techniques.

The question is, how can a society driven by traumatic circumstances to cynicism and hard-heartedness ever open up to such methods?

This is a problem we will probably continue to struggle with, if not forever, at least for the foreseeable future. One thing, however, is certain - we will never solve it by pretending that crime and violence are the purview of a small, fringe element of society.

Violent crime may not exist in all places at all times, but the seeds of aggression and criminality have been sown into the very fabric of the Bahamian character over the past few decades and no one is immune to the consequences. The sooner we admit this and get on with finding the best way to tackle it, the better.

What do you think?

July 19, 2010