by Larry Smith
Conversations with taxi drivers these days are no longer about the weather or business - they're all about the latest killings.
Another young man stabbed or shot to death for who knows what. Another young woman dispatched in a domestic quarrel. Another gunfight at the fish fry. Experts say homicide is a reliable barometer of all violent crime, and we have had 46 murders so far this year - one of the highest per capita rates in the world.
Death by violence is commonplace on New Providence, along with armed robbery and rape, and our youth seem to be armed to the teeth. When 18-year-old Mardio Hall was killed at the QE sports centre days ago, newspaper reports said other young people in the crowd were moved to fire their weapons in the air.
Police say 70 per cent of local murders are committed by young men between the ages of 18 and 35 - and their victims are usually other young men. The causes range from gang warfare to lovers' quarrels to drug disputes to plain old arguments.
And public response to this unprecedented tide of killings has been predictable. The Christian Council demands "immediate hangings." Others call for prayer meetings. And some have suggested an amnesty for thugs to turn in their weapons to local pastors.
As for the causes, some argue that our young men are bored, uneducated and unable to make a living. Others say they want the power that comes with guns. Still others say it's a question of anger management, because even trivial disputes lead to violence. And since weapons abound, the violence is often deadly.
In fact, one of society's greatest fears today is the swaggering youth with a gun or knife in his hand and ruthlessness in his heart. And the big question is: are we are producing a generation of killers that will send the country spiraling into anarchy?
This breakdown is often attributed to our dysfunctional court system, which cannot properly process or hold criminals. As former policeman Paul Thompson says, "our courts are in shambles and the backlog of cases continues to escalate resulting in persons accused of very serious crimes being given bail after years in prison without trial."
And here's what one political leader had to say about the problem: "We know we've got about six years to turn this juvenile crime thing around or our country is going to be living with chaos."
That was Bill Clinton - president of the United States from 1992 to 2000. He was reacting to the dramatic crime wave of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when increases in drug dealing and related handgun violence in the US pushed up the murder rate for teenagers by 22 per cent. And all the experts said it would only get worse.
Criminologist James Allen Fox predicted "a bloodbath of teen violence in the years ahead...Too many children are coming out undersocialized and undersupervised. They have too much free time on their hands. Literally time to kill."
Experts have long assumed that crime rates are directly related to demographics. For example, conservative theorist James Q. Wilson said in 1975 that "a critical mass of younger persons... creates an explosive increase in the amount of crime."
But it is not just the number of young people that is important to the crime rate. It is also the kind of families they come from. Social scientists say the rise in violent crime has paralleled the rise in families that have been abandoned by fathers, and a 10 per cent increase in the percentage of children living in single-parent homes leads typically to a 17 per cent increase in juvenile crime.
According to Dr Patrick Fagan of the Heritage Foundation (writing in 1995), "The evidence suggests that at the heart of the explosion of crime in America is the loss of the capacity of fathers and mothers to be responsible in caring for the children they bring into the world. This loss of love and guidance at the intimate levels of marriage and family has broad social consequences for children and for the wider community."
In this view, the root cause of crime is not poverty, but moral failure. It is the refusal to exercise personal responsibility and the inability to enter into relationships based on a common code of conduct. For example, one major US study of 11,000 individuals found that "the percentage of single-parent households with children between the ages of 12 and 20 is significantly associated with rates of violent crime and burglary."
And Kevin Wright, professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York, says "Research confirms that children raised in supportive, affectionate, and accepting homes are less likely to become deviant. Children rejected by parents are among the most likely to become delinquent."
In fact, this theory was confirmed by the last taxi driver I spoke to - one Livingstone Miller of Everglades Road: "People blame the PLP government and they blame the FNM government, but it is really the family and the way they bring these kids up."
Miller, a devout Roman Catholic, agrees with all the researchers who find that a neighborhood composed mainly of single-parent families is invariably a chaotic, crime-ridden community in which assaults are high and the gang - the delinquent subcommunity - assumes control.
Prayer services won't cut it. And there are no statistics anywhere to prove that the death penalty reduces crime. But, as Dr Fagan says, "it is no coincidence that one of the central rules in the traditional moral codes of all communities at all times, in all places, and in all cultures is the prohibition against giving birth to children outside of marriage. Societies all over the world have recognized that this prohibition is essential to social stability and to raising members of each new generation with the proper respect for their community and their peers."
In their book, Freakonomics, economists Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner examined factors that played a critical role in reducing crime in the US during the 1990s. These factors included extra police, jailing more criminals, the decline of the crack epidemic and legalization of abortion in the 1970s.
"The magnitude of this reversal was astounding," Levitt and Dubner say. "The murder rate, instead of rising 100 per cent, or even 15 per cent as James Allen Fox had warned, fell more than 50 per cent within five years. By 2000 the overall murder rate in the United States had dropped to its lowest level in 35 years. So had the rate of just about every other sort of crime."
They attribute this largely to a young woman in Dallas named Norma McCorvey - a poor, uneducated, unskilled, alcoholic, drug-using 21-year-old who had already given up two children for adoption and found herself pregnant again. She became the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit to legalise abortion, which made its way to the Supreme Court in 1973 under the name of Roe versus Wade.
So how did abortion help trigger the greatest crime drop in recorded history?
Well, as Levitt and Dubner point out, "as far as crime is concerned, not all children are born equal. Decades of studies have shown that a child born into an adverse family environment is far more likely than other children to become a criminal. And the millions of women mostly likely to have an abortion in the wake of Roe vs Wade - poor, unmarried, teenage mothers - were often models of adversity. They were the very women whose children, if born, would have been much more likely than average to become criminals.
"It wasn't gun control or a strong economy or new police strategies that finally blunted the American crime wave. It was, among other factors, the reality that a pool of potential criminals had dramatically shrunk."
So should we Bahamians be concerned about the careless reproduction of unwanted and uncared for children? Well, about 70 per cent of all births in the Bahamas are now illegitimate and almost half of very poor households are headed by single women, supporting five or more dependents. We also have the top recorded rape rate in the world and one of the highest murder rates.
National Security Minister Tommy Turnquest says the government is working on a multisectoral crime control master plan to be unveiled in the fall. This has been a recommendation of the CARICOM Task Force on Crime and Security since 2002.
But to address the real roots of crime, it seems that our political and religious leaders should be inspiring Bahamians to rebuild their families and communities. And it also means that the people at the top must set the supreme example by following the rules and codes of conduct themselves.