[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]
“The People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions – everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”
The Roman poet Juvenal wrote these lines in his Satires a little over a hundred years after the birth of Christ. He accuses the people of Rome – at the time the most powerful empire in the world – of losing sight of their civic responsibilities, giving everything up in exchange for gifts of grain and public entertainments.
People are always quick to draw parallels between modern USA and ancient Rome in its decline. But we can draw a more direct lesson from Juvenal’s tirade: Whether through a lack of concern or naïveté, our own choices have led us to the apparent security crisis we face today.
At least the Romans got free food and entertainment out of the bargain. Here in Vanuatu, we don’t even get that. We relinquish our societal responsibilities to others, and receive only danger in exchange.
In fairness, the Millennium Challenge Fund and liberalisation of the telecommunications monopoly are fruit we all reap from the efforts of a determined few. The scope of these two projects is nationwide, but the needs of the nation extend far beyond basic infrastructure.
Security is an area where we’ve seen little if any progress. Indeed, some retired policemen I’ve spoken with recall the pre-Independence period with nostalgia, and say that things have gone steadily downhill ever since.
In recent months, a veritable hue and cry has arisen over what some characterise as the sieve-like security at our prisons. No sooner is someone incarcerated, it seems, then they slip back over the fence or even, in one notable case, are escorted through the front gate.
It’s a bad mix: Violent crime, prisoners escaping, an invisible police force, ineffectual Correctional Services and a growing sense of fear among a populace that sees itself as next in line for victimhood. These factors led to an awkward and overzealous response by authorities. Prison guards are now armed with shotguns while paramilitaries in full combat regalia go out in search of escapees. Many people have expressed satisfaction with these actions. Phrases like ‘zero tolerance’ are bandied about, accompanied by chest puffing and not a little swagger.
It can only end in tears. Judging by the exceedingly dangerous way they handle their weapons, prison guards have received no firearms training. I fear it’s only a matter of time before there’s an accidental shooting due to incompetence or over-enthusiastic pursuit.
In the past, crime among the ni-Vanuatu population was dealt with through kastom. In cases where the gravity of the offense was too great to ignore, police would intervene. There were regular (though not necessarily frequent) patrols throughout the islands, where police would liaise with chiefs and community leaders to keep the peace.
But these twin bulwarks of stability in society have been steadily eroded of late, partly because it was easier for all of us to let things slide than to do the hard yards needed to keep these institutions alive.
I am tempted to channel the spirit of Juvenal and state that, what with all the slack we gave them, the least our leaders could have done was put on a circus or two. Instead, we get a shadow play about bogeymen being chased by armed men with more enthusiasm than training.
The creation of the department of Correctional Services is a particularly vivid example of how we got things wrong. The principle of rehabilitation is a sound one. It could mesh well with kastom, if we made the effort. Ending the terrible human right abuses that happen in our jails – terrible enough that Amnesty International took note – was absolutely necessary. To do that, we had to replace police with properly trained guards.
The transition was disastrous. We got the ‘replace’ part right, but apparently not the part about adequate training.
It failed because nobody really understood what they were supposed to be accomplishing. Creating a humane, remedial environment for prisoners is necessary for the most selfish of reasons: if we don’t, they’ll never change their ways. This was misconstrued, of course, as creating a ‘country club’ for prisoners.
But mostly, nobody cared about the crime, the criminals or their treatment. Because we allowed them, our leaders neglected the issue entirely, leaving it up to New Zealand and a few well-meaning officials to shoulder a burden that simply could not be carried alone.
We need a clear national commitment to address issues of law enforcement, crime and punishment and to make them workable in our society. One integral step toward doing so is reconciling criminal justice mechanisms with social justice as described by kastom, making each stronger in the process.
Security is everyone’s problem. The only way to fix it is to quit giving our leaders – and ourselves – a free ride on it. If that means foregoing a bag of rice and a few shells of kava at election time, so be it. This security circus has simply got to stop.