Friday, September 03, 2004

The Dream of a Crime-Free Society

He seemed agonized. I asked him what was wrong. He had called hisfolks in Karachi and learnt about a robbery next door to where theylive. I was relieved that it had happened next door and not at hisfolks' place. He didn't share my equanimity. He told me the robberyhad greatly disturbed his folks. His brother was especially anguished. In the middle of the day when his recently-marriedbrother's wife was leaving for college, she saw five men coming out ofthe neighbors'house. A few of them had in their hands what in Pakistan are called "TT"s (one of a variety of handguns known by the abbreviation for"Tula Tokarev"). She immediately drove away.

Later, his folks learnt the details of what had happened. It started when the neighbors' driver was outside working on their car. A whiteToyota stopped in front of their house and five men jumped out of thecar. One of them put a gun to the driver's head and asked him to leadthem into the house. The robbers went in with the driver, held upeverybody present in the house and demanded that all jewelry and cashbe given to them right away. The owners complied and the robbers left.

Why was this robbery so worrisome to his brother, I asked him. Well,first of all because of the demeanor of the robbers, including thefact that two of them spoke Punjabi whereas the other three spokeKarachi Urdu--something that suggested that they were policemen.Obviously, you can now exclude the Police from solving this case.Secondly, the fact that the neighbors had drawn Rs. 50,000 from thebank that morning and had taken the jewelry out of their safe deposit the street --had been watching the neighborhood. [I wonder why in the face of prevailing lawlessness Karachiyays keep dealing in big wads of cash.] So, whoever had been observing the neighborhood to look for patterns and opportunities will have also noticed that his brother's beautiful young wife leaves for college at 12 Noon everyday. Shouldn't his brother worry that the same people can now pull a carjacking and take his wife along? I tried to comfort him with the argument that a kidnapping is a much more involved enterprise than robbery. He didn't buy that. Criminals in Karachi act with impunity; the fact that they are almost never apprehended has emboldened them further, he told me. They would rob, kidnap, kill, and everything in\between, depending on their disposition that day, he thought.

I tried to be philosophical about the situation arguing with him that the Karachi chaos has no pattern to it and hence no predictions can be made--better to take your mind off it so that it won't take a toll on\your sanity. It is like worrying that a meteor will hit you on the head when you are outdoors--knowing that out of the thousands of meteors that continuously collide with Earth's atmosphere, a few make it to Earth's surface intact. (My emphasis in that analogy being on the unpredictability rather than the frequency of the phenomenon.) I told him that most developing countries are going through similar law and order situations, and that things are even worse for people in Iraq and Afghanistan. That in a country where assassination attempts on high-ranking officials are common, what better treatment should ordinary citizens expect? These arguments didn't comfort him at all. He told me that a few months back his brother had tried to gather neighbors and initiate measures that would increase the security and the hygienic conditions of the locality; very few responded positively: their non-cooperation suggesting either a mistrust on any formal organization, or the neighbors' belief that their nawafils and ayat-ul-kursis alone can halt all evils at their doors.

He told me that such incidents affecting his folks happen with great frequency. Every few months they are terrorized; reminded that they are living in a failing society. Every time they begin to relax and start forgetting the last incident they are hit by a new misfortune--their only apparent remedy being to buy more Lexotanils from the neighborhood pharmacy.

He asked me if he should advise his folks to move somewhere decent within Karachi? I asked him which neighborhood of Karachi he considered decent (which I took to mean safer).
"Are robbers keeping out of Defense?"
He wasn't sure.
Should he suggest that they move to Islamabad, he asked me. What's so special about Islamabad, I asked. There was a time when Islamabad was a few miles outside of Pakistan, but not any more. The capital is now as filthy and unsafe as any other place in Pakistan. There is no "decent" place to live in Pakistan, period. Are his folks interested in applying for Canadian immigration, I asked. Probably not, they had lived there all their lives. Well, then there is not much choice, I rested my case. Recognize that it has been two generations since anyone did any serious comprehensive work to improve that system.

We drifted to related topics. We wondered if taxpaying citizens of Pakistan should sue the government for the decrepit law and order situation. We talked about the joblessness, the lack of opportunities, and the absence of hope in our motherland. We recognized that crime has two distinct facets: extempore and premeditated. In tightly controlled traditional societies where everybody knows everybody else, most of the crime must be extempore--when somebody just loses it. We guessed that in large urban centers such as Karachi 99% of all crime is premeditated--the impetus for this type of crime being the ability to hide, to get away with the crime.

We recognized that crime has a much higher cost than the apparent value of things stolen or the physical and psychological injuries sustained. The whole uncertainty, the constant fear of the prospect of crime affects the psyche of every member of the society. There is no need for this. We have the technology to eradicate premeditated crime.

We dreamt of a society where all public places are made free of crime. The public places are constantly watched--not by people but by a multitude of surveillance cameras. These cameras cover every portion of the space. We dreamt of a society where all vehicles have barcodes and roadside barcode-readers constantly register the movement of these cars. The cameras and the barcode recorders are continuously archiving this data without any human scrutiny of that information. These recordings will only be used when a crime actually takes place. After the incident of a crime we play back the cameras and interpret the barcode-reader archive to see what really happened. There is no getting away with crime in that society. Imagine what a relief every member of the community would feel when they don't have to worry about being robbed, assaulted, or violated in any form.

Yes, such an elaborate system of surveillance is very expensive, but look at the cost crime and its fear extract. See what human potential we are suppressing by allowing the possibility of crime. The fulfillment of living in a crime-free society is far more valuable than the cost of the system that would buy it--it is as if the security of your home has grown, and spread outdoors and all around you. Imagine the money such a society will be saving in policing the streets, and the time the much smaller police force would have to spend to solve any crime--all that is needed to be done is to play back the cameras!

Yes, we are dealing with the very sensitive issue of privacy. The privacy issue needs to be addressed on both the personal and the societal levels. On the personal level it would be this knowledge that you are being constantly watched. Why should anyone know who you meet and how you interact with them? Well, imagine the public place surveillance system to be your new social contract with the society: just as you have to obey society's norms outside your home, in the crime-free society you would have this one more inconvenience of having your movement constantly monitored in public places.

On a larger scale the fear would be that someone or a group of people could misuse that system; that the public place surveillance system might be used to target specific people and to spy on their activities; that it would be the Soviet Union all over again. Well, not quite. We have evolved beyond that. In a democratic society people collectively choose a few representatives to make decisions on their behalf. Similarly, the democratic system will rotate the few who will be made responsible to monitor the public surveillance system.

In short, our ideal crime free society is not willing to set the criminals free under the notion of privacy in public places. Citizens are welcome to enjoy all the privacy in the comfort of their homes, but when they go out they will be watched.

My dear friend Sabahat Ashraf, on reviewing this article, noted:
"So you think that we have evolved to a point where our elected and democratic leaders--like John Ashcroft, for example--can be trusted with this?"
[Of course my friend knows that Attorney Generals are never democratically elected.]

Arguing that we should not have a comprehensive public surveillance system because it might be abused is like saying that we should not employ democracy because the Nazis in Germany came to power through democratic means.

Long time ago when humans practiced cannibalism, one of our greatest fears was that a fellow human being would eat us. Having abandoned cannibalism long time ago, we no longer carry that fear. Similarly, eradicating crime, the fear of being violated too, one day, will become a quondam memory.