by Kahlil Enriquez
On Emancipation Day, as I listened to and reflected on the deeply powerful and somber “I have a dream” speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King in his quest for freedom and justice, a particular line echoed deeply in my mind. In the midst of recent escalating levels of violence in our jewel, I pondered the fact that King’s speech also emanated when the U.S. had reached a breaking point regarding injustices committed against its black citizens. King’s stern and resolute warning was that the nation could not go back to business as usual… “Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content, will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual”, he said.
Belize reached a most disturbing tipping point when we recorded our first mass shooting incident in Hopkins last weekend, in which almost a dozen persons were shot, including two who were fatally wounded in a crowded bar hosting a community dance. While it was bad enough that there has been relentless bloodshed on our streets as a result of targeted gang rivalry, this new occurrence of an unexpected, reckless, indiscriminate mass shooting in the peaceful village of Hopkins, not known for violence, has left Belizeans all over the country more deeply troubled. Clearly, this nation, which only a few generations ago was regarded as a “peaceful haven of democracy”, has continued over recent years to be consistently ranked as one of the most violent countries in the world.
Such an unprecedented level of violence has got to have all of us citizens insisting strongly to the government, the churches, civil society, business community, schools, and families, that if we are to avoid a further rude awakening, this nation cannot go back to business as usual. This is a national collective mental illness of crisis proportions that urgently needs to be addressed. There are deeply hurt, neglected, and violently angry people who urgently need healing interventions in order to prevent the further unleashing of the state of violence that they already have within them.
The current situation must be treated with extreme urgency, making it one of our highest national priorities to find every means necessary to devise the most effective national strategy to systemically address the problem of relentless crime at the root level. If society’s institutions remain apathetic to this level of violence and adjust their acceptance of this trend, it will, like cancer when left untreated, more aggressively spread and become more dangerous and destructive to our country. If this situation is not effectively addressed now, the more emboldened our criminal elements will become, the more difficult it will be to resolve.
As a Belizean youth, I do not get the impression that there has been a strong sense of urgency being collectively conveyed by our society’s institutions to address this deepening problem. Instead, all institutions seem to be continuing business as usual, without a sense of urgency to devise as many plans as possible for effective targeted interventions to support the nurturing and transformation of values among youths. We should implement and increase programs that lead to empowering learning experiences in the school system; and increase the number of committed youth organizations to develop positive values and skills among youths; as well as the number of interventions for a decrease in abuse and violence within and among families. Collectively, these have deep impacts on our youth and are bound to escalate to future generations if this business as usual status quo continues.
Belizean youths across the country are left with many unanswered questions regarding the current state of affairs. Since then, over 1,000 youths (mainly black males) have been killed as a result of gun violence over the past few years. How many more would have to be killed before institutions awaken from their sleeping business-as-usual mindset? And if not now, then when? If not now, when will be the right time for us to amend our laws, judicial processes, and our failed justice system? If not now, then when will be the time to implement the strictest of intervention measures to nurture consistent mental/emotional health and wellness practices throughout our schools? If not now, then when will we come together as a society to plan and implement strong, effective systems in which criminals do not feel immune to the law: and commit increasingly atrocious crimes which put everyone at risk and compromise freedom, sense of security and way of life? When will be the time to invest in nurturing positive values, through sports, creative and expressive arts, and productive skills training among youths, especially those outside the school system? What type of nation is the adult population across institutions, leaving behind for us youths? Is the apparent lack of engagement by too many adults to stop this crisis, the legacy to leave for future generations?
At this critical juncture, we can no longer sit back and hopelessly and nonchalantly wait for the usual, slow, and inefficient process of our failed justice system to work. It has been proven time and time again that our system is hopelessly broken. A nation or state that cannot adequately provide justice and protection for its citizens is a failed state. This nation is at a critical juncture. The time to act in transformative ways and also to find ways to resolve this national crisis of violence is now.
Government officials, Minister of National Security, Commissioner of Police, church leaders, civil society, the business community, please let us see you act effectively to bring forth the interventions that are necessary. While youths are seeking answers, you all have the experience, or ought to, to bring this dangerous societal decay to a halt. How can we call our society a free society if we all live in a society where citizens are increasingly fearful to exercise their constitutional freedoms without becoming a victim to violence?
The time is now to devise a collective and inclusive national intervention plan without the divisive bickering that has added to the chaos in this country. The process should include relevant local and international stakeholders at the table to discuss how we can most efficiently and effectively reduce the prevalence of violence and its inclinations by way of anger, jealousy, envy and hatred in the homes, schools, offices, and wider community. Let us also find ways to heal personally and collectively, knowing that verbal and physical violence inflicted against others mainly come from persons who have deep wounds buried in the mind that can be triggered mindlessly if not healed. Every possible avenue for rebuilding our nation, including lessons learned from abroad, must be looked at.
The tendency to rely mainly on the Police Department to solve this very complex multidimensional issue is short-sighted and will continue to show failure, even when manpower is increased. This is far more than a police problem. It requires efforts at various levels of society, all working in unison with a strong, sustained sense of urgency, and a passion that we are undertaking a mission on which our lives and that of future generations literally depend, and we cannot fail. There must be a renewed effort with the strongest conviction of all institutions that we can and must do all that is necessary to break this destructive cycle of violence. Just as resources were secured to pave even the remotest highways in this country, such resources must be found to pave a new social environment where Belizeans can learn to respect and enjoy individual and community life in peace and harmony.