by Larry Smith
People are more and more depressed at our skyrocketing crime rate and deepening level of moral depravity. One can sense a growing hopelessness because of the poor economic climate combined with the absence of any serious efforts at social reform or renewal by credible leaders.
But looking around this depressed landscape, with people crying hysterically on almost every street corner, you would never believe that the causes and progress of the country's social breakdown have been fully documented over the past 30-odd years by a series of special reports commissioned by the government.
They have included the 1984 commission of inquiry into drug smuggling and the task force on drug abuse, the 1994 task force on education and the consultative committee on youth development, and the 1998 national crime commission.
What did that last report conclude? Well, the commissioners (a judge, a psychiatrist, a criminologist, social workers and clergymen) warned that Bahamian society was threatened by "a pervasive culture of dishonesty, greed and a casual disregard for social norms and regulation."
The 1994 national youth report - chaired by Anglican prelate Drexel Gomez along with other clergymen, police officers and youth leaders said indiscipline, materialism and low self-esteem among young Bahamians had the potential to cause a social "catastrophe". It seems we are about to live through that prediction now.
The Gomez report listed high population densities in Nassau, too many bars and liquor stores, squalid neighbourhoods, limited recreational opportunities, education failures and the fact that single girls were having too many babies as the chief factors shaping the behaviour of our young people.
According to the experts, these factors had contributed to a rise in domestic violence, a decline in social responsibility and work ethic, a lack of national pride, more lifestyle diseases like alcoholism, AIDS and obesity, and rising levels of criminality. In other words, a culture of raging self-indulgence.
"Roaming youth, especially on New Providence, went on rampages, damaging property and inflicting harm. There was a growing tendency to use guns or knives to settle scores and access to guns was increasingly easy," the report said.
"Failure to educate students about life issues including the natural environment, social responsibility, moral duty and cultural heritage was seen as contributing to the aimlessness of youth and their uncertainty about identity...An entrenched class of underachievers existed...A government job was preferred."
The 1994 report concluded that fundamental social reforms were needed, as well as better public education, and more youth training and job programmes. The issues are the same today.
Stamping out gang warfare in the schools and providing more extra-curricular activities for bored students were considered vital. Alcohol and drug abuse were acknowledged as major contributors to school underachievement, and the Broadcasting Corporation was urged to focus on more appropriate youth programming.
The report added that young people were also products of their physical environment, and called for proper zoning and urban planning to avoid the decay of neighbourhoods throughout the Bahamas by creeping commercialisation. And politicians were urged to provide "visionary leadership" based on personal integrity and public accountability. Sound familiar?
That was a generation ago. In 1998, the national crime commission was appointed amid growing fears that New Providence was on the verge of "social collapse". Led by Chief Justice Sir Burton Hall, this panel found that the Bahamian family was fast disintegrating into a pit of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
"We are reaping the rewards of our own inabilities, inattentiveness, incompetence and indiscipline," the report said, "the seeds of which were sown many years ago...Commissioners are left with the impression that most crimes, of all types, are the product of greed, not need."
Again there were strident calls for the media to re-examine their perceived role as purveyors of gratuitous violence, promiscuous sex and double standards. Commissioners strongly supported the transformation of ZNS into a socially responsible public broadcaster along the lines of the CBC or BBC.
Gang activities had become more of a problem in the four years that had elapsed since the youth report was published. In 1998 the commissioners referred to the deployment of gang members by political parties to disrupt the activities of opponents. And there were fresh allegations of this sort of dark alliance during the 2007 and 2012 elections.
The commissioners agreed that there was a direct link between the physical squalour of our communities and other forms of anti-social behaviour. They called for an environmental court to deal with illegal dumping and littering, as well as the regulation of roadside garages and street vendors - considered destinations for stolen vehicles and produce.
The 1998 report also exposed some of the more blatant hypocrisies of Bahamian life, pointing out a few "striking examples of how the public gets agitated about certain types of crime while many of that same public are complicit in other crimes."
Those examples included the high level of theft among hotel employees; the money lost by businesses at the hands of customers, employees and suppliers - much higher than the losses due to armed robbery; the theft of funds by charity and church workers; and the damage done to our primary producers by the widespread stealing of crops and livestock as well as fishing boats and gear.
There were also the now familiar calls to fix our judicial system - by providing new court facilities and administrative improvements - and for even and consistent law enforcement, with more police presence in critical areas like Bay Street. Bahamians tolerated a culture of lawlessness, the report said, as demonstrated by the popular numbers racket and the wholesale flouting of traffic, environmental and street vending regulations.
One key recommendation was the formation of a permanent non-political advisory body to act as the ultimate oversight authority on critical social issues. This citizens' council was finally appointed in 2007 to offer practical proposals for crime control. Members included clergymen, social workers, policemen, and business representatives. But have you heard of this commission since then?
Clearly we need a strategically organised and strongly led response to pursue the advice contained in these reports, or the celebration of 40 years of independence will be utterly meaningless.