I write this with a sense of chronic pessimism. That’s because the open letter I wrote to the then home minister two years ago for a commonsensical archery regulation to make the national sport safe remains ignored. And that’s despite the fact that it was the prime minister who, through an August 2014 tweet, had sought suggestions to make the sport safe. The tweet attracted a heap of practical suggestions, but it’s tragic to note that not even a single one has been considered for implementation till this day. Public safety is a national priority, too. It cannot be ignored.
Regrettably, even though Thimphu is getting insanely unsafe this attitude hasn’t budged. Somehow or other, every tragedy is being consigned to oblivion after every perfunctory expression of shock. Each tragedy is played down as a one-off, and we are made to carry on as if nothing has happened. How can we make Thimphu safe with an attitude like that?
Now, we have a spat of fatal stabbings, leading to a rise in stabbing crime. Every month somebody is getting stabbed, often in broad daylight. Most of the perpetrators have been caught and jailed, but that hasn’t stopped the senseless stabbings.
Frisking immediately followed an executive order, but it drew flak. The pillorying does deserve some merit since it highlights the critical balance between a well-meaning public safety measure and an individual’s civil rights, not to mention the potential marginalisation of young people, engendering distrust that could water down whatever we have achieved so far. But we have to also appreciate the fact that our men and women in blue couldn’t have gone gung-ho about the order, not least because it’s replete with risk, as is evident in a critically injured colleague of theirs after he was hit on the head following a hot pursuit.
When all is said and done, there’s no denying that the senseless stabbings have to be stopped; the knives will have to be banished from our streets. But what’s the smartest way to go about it?
Even though unpopular, it’s perhaps expedient to have a better, more targeted body-search strategy based on a reasonable suspicion that doesn’t lead to isolation of our young people, and one that helps gain public acceptance and support in order to immediately blunt the violence and remedy any public inconvenience. More importantly, it seems to articulate well with a multi-pronged approach to addressing the problem.
The mere presence of such a measure, however ineffective, will send out a message that carrying knives in public places will not be tolerated. The argument that a practical, vital measure to curb knife crimes is to make sure that knives of all sorts are banished from our streets doesn’t escape reasoning. The perpetrators presumably feel more emboldened by a weak deterrence or lack thereof. On that basis, it’s even fair to ask: is a strong knife law a practical answer?
Gun laws in Australia have been a huge success that it’s being looked up to as the gold standard for gun regulations worldwide. It has been worked around the fundamental problem of easy accessibility and availability of guns. That’s obviously not a knife law case, but the insight that nothing trumps easy access to and unfettered possession of any kind of weapon as the primary cause of weapon-related crime is worth embracing.
Some measures will be unpopular and no legislation will prevent every tragedy. But if there’s a way that holds the promise for stopping the senseless stabbings, we have a moral obligation to try it out.
Times have changed. So has the nature of crimes. We have been through a past of robberies and gang fights, but the knives were not common. We now have robbers who won’t think twice about knifing down homeowners to get away with their loot, and individuals who are more willing to brandish a knife even over petty matters. There’s a dangerous shift in culture, and we need to understand why that’s happening. Is it because knives are easily available? Or, is it because our young men now feel more insecure that they must carry a knife? I’d like to hope that I’m asking the right questions here.
Of course, there are much deeper underlying social causes at play such as drugs, alcohol, gaping inequality, unemployment, and an education system that fails to see beyond numbers on the scorecard – a vicious cycle that has enmeshed quite a number of our young kids that has maimed their ability to envision a path to a better future. In fact, research reveals a strong correlation between drug crimes and knife violence.
Further, it’s particularly hard on our young ones when their own folks give up on them, or their parents are too busy with “other” things. In such a situation, it’s easy for desperation to set in, resulting in violence and other expressions of their coping “strategy”. So, to condemn the perpetrators – no matter how heinous their crime might be—is to be naive and ignorant about the complex interplay of factors that give rise to such crimes in the first place.
We have the support structures to address these factors, but whether they are adequate enough or are working to turn out the desired outcome is anybody’s guess. Our rehab system, although commendable, is facing mounting criticism despite the fact that folks there are doing an awesome job. When all is said and done, these are only half measures if we cannot pry out our young people from the vicious cycle of drugs and crime and make them effective, full citizens.
At a deeper level, I think we need to address a catch-22: We need to make our towns safe if we want our young men to stop carrying knives, and they probably won’t if they feel safer and more satisfied with their lives.
But the government and our social institutions can only do so much. Parents and carers need to do their part, too. Technically speaking, it’s not a problem with our youth. It’s a parent problem. It’s a public policy problem. It’s a community problem. No child is born with a knife. They learn to carry one as they grow up. A serious effort on the part of the parents will therefore have more impact than any law or tough-looking measure by the government.
We all know that it’s tearing apart our future promise. What the perpetrators have done is wrong and law will take its course. But we have to also understand their lives and factors that eventually led them to do what they have done while we sympathise with the victims who lost their life. That’s a step in the right direction.