Fundamentally different: a look back at a career #2-It’s 9/11/2001

Although I know that many people will immediately run to recollect how they dealt with the tragedy of the bombing of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, on September 11, 2001, it’s always a strange day for me to remember.

I was working in Nouackchott, Mauritania, at the time, and had just ended morning meetings and heading to lunch with members of the IMF team, negotiating the fourth review of the program supported under the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) and the main parameters of the 2002 budget.

Nouackchott, street scene: familiar indigo boubous (Image courtesy of

Mauritania is on the edge of the Sahara Desert and dealing with sand is an integral part of living there. It’s flat and when sand storms blow it’s about what you can touch not what you can see. Sand in everything is standard, and my suitcases after trips there were always full of sand grains, even though my hotel room had sealed windows.

As we entered the restaurant (one of our regulars, whose name escapes me), we say the TV tuned to CNN and all eyes and faces turned to it. We were by the door and couldn’t hear the commentary, but we all took it that this was an action film being shown as we saw images of smoke tailing up into the sky.

World Trade Center after planes crashed into it on September 11, 2001

No way in our imaginations could we have understood this to be real—an apocalyptic scene from the USA.

Then, we began to hear the commentary coming over the screen, in English—sounding odd, in a French-speaking country, and I don’t know how many understood the words spoken. As we stood watching and the realisation hit home, people started to reach for mobile phones and start calling home. It was hearing the distressed voices of loved ones talking about what they had seen and were going to do to get home or get children from school and reassess. My current wife and I weren’t yet married, and she was having to negotiate in the city that is the governmental epicentre, Washington DC. I’ve heard stories of the frantic drive from the Fund to school to pick up her daughter and get home, but it’s not a reality that I can touch. That’s how disasters are, second-hand.

Many things hit home, immediately, in Mauritania, the first of which was that the attack was by a group of radical Muslims, and there we were in the capital of a Muslim country. I remember voices from the restaurant saying things like “This is not Islam!” as the shock registered with local people.

We ended the mission and headed back to Washington and the first taste of what modern air travel was going to be for years afterwards, as we navigated new security measures as we transited Paris and then arrived in Washington. I can’t remember the details of the scrutiny but I had the ‘memories’ scarred onto my life for years to come as my UN laisser-passer carried stamps from a Muslim country. I was to be often taken aside for ‘special screening’ on many of my departures from Washington DC, and it took some strong letters to the Department of Homeland Security to get the ‘red flags’ removed from my profile, after the ‘random’ checks for almost every departure got to be too much.

Good over evil?

I must write about some of the implications of the so-called ‘Vybz Karkel murder trial’. But, first, I want to touch on one of Jamaica’s other seeming conundrums. Many people are quick to say how Jamaicans lack civility and decent; how they are rude and boorish and disrespectful; how they are quick resort to anger and use foul language and violence. Yet, I contend, that is not what most Jamaicans are like. It may be what we see sometimes. It may be part of what the news media report as ‘news’. But, it is a small part of the picture that has been made to seem like the whole or most.

In the middle of the week I was a witness to a violent attack. I was outside with my daughter and a classmate, who were riding on the roadway. One of my neighbours pulled up in her car, with her older daughter. We began a conversation. I had seen her a few times recently while she was running but we had not chance to talk by our houses. We took the time to catch up casually–about her running, about our children (her oldest daughter was with her in the car), about my wife, about work, about our dogs. Two of her dogs were nearby, roaming on her lawn. My daughter’s puppy came down the driveway and was also roaming around. Suddenly, my neighbour’s dog, black, jumped on my daughter’s puppy, white, pinning him to the ground and taking a good bite of him. I heard the first squeals and went quickly to the dogs, yelling “Hey, stop that!” The black dog jumped up and ran back towards his home.

His owner, a little shocked, began to apologise for what had happened. The black dog, showing some contrition, had his hackles raised and his head was bowed. Our dog, got up and walked around without any gait. I saw a streak of redness around one eye and damp pinkish fur around his face. Clearly, he had been cut, but it was not too bad. He skipped back inside the house not seeming to be in too much pain.

The children were shocked but not scared. They went back to riding bikes. My neighbour and I continued talking for a few more minutes, then she headed home and I continued with the children.

When my wife came home, we explained to her what had happened. She decided to send the dog to the vet the next day to check the injury. When we came home later the next afternoon, a strange-looking animal came to greet us. We did not see the long-haired, round-faced puppy that we had begun to know so well. Instead, we say an elongated animal, looking like an a sausage on legs, with a pointy face and nose, and a bluish ring around one eye. The only way that we knew the two animals were the same was from the subdued but familiar greeting, as he tried stand on his hind legs to be stroked. Shock! Horror! The dog had been shorn, literally, of his dignity. We laughed. He went to lie do. He had stitches and was still recovering from his ordeal at the vet’s. It turns out that the vet had added insult to injury by cutting the dog on his stomach, and having to stitch that, too. I wondered if we would sue the doctor.

Yesterday, my neighbour called at my house. We spoke for several minutes about her running and how her injuries were just making it all too difficult. She then saw our puppy and asked what had happened. I explained about the visit to the vet’s. Then, she said “Give me the bill from the vet. It’s my fault; it’s my dog who did the damage.” I told her to talk to my wife, who had the bill and they could sort it out.

That’s where we are now. I don’t know if my wife will act and if my neighbour will pay. I expect the situation to be resolved amicably.

Although, the incident did not involve any people directly, it seemed like a typical confrontation that could occur anywhere, not just in Jamaica. An unprovoked attack. An injured victim. An attacker witnessed and apprehended. It could be allegorical, but I wont go there now. No harsh words were exchanged between my neighbour and myself. She looked embarrassed as well as a bit shocked. I was not too taken about–nature in the raw, tooth and claw, I thought. It was not our children having a go at each other. Not much blood had been spilt. I was sanguine about the sanguineness.

On any given day, as I roam around Kingston, I see little incidents. People yelling at each other. People waving their arms at each other. People showing clear signs of anger with each other. I have yet to see anyone strike another person, and therefore, I have not seen what is reported daily in the apparent litany of crime that occurs. I am not denying crime and its horrific and senseless self.

I am no fool, and I did not grow up in a baby’s nursery. I did not grow up in the poshest of neighbourhoods, nor did I grow up in a seething cauldron of violence. But, I grew up in places where people took out their grievances openly quite often. I’ve seen my mother face a deranged woman–a tenant–wielding a huge kitchen knife in our house. I’ve seen a man take a crowbar and beat another to the ground (over a minor traffic incident). I have been in riots in London that involved molotov cocktails and people kicking policemen and their horses. I have been in football stadiums when all Hell broke loose and it was a miracle that I did not get crushed in a stampede.

I know that it takes little provocation or none at all for people to let loose on each other and try to beat the living daylights out of each other. Hurling bricks, wielding sticks, pulling knives are things that I have seen up close–when I was a boy, mostly. Cuts, punches, kicks, bites, ripped clothes, bloody faces, broken limbs or joints are things that I have seen as the results of altercations. Some of the encounters were in places where confrontation reigns–on the football field; the worst ones ended with the police arriving and people being taken away in handcuffs. Most of the others ended with people running away or walking away, sometimes promising that “This isn’t over…” Sometimes, people returned to the fray at their next meeting.

Which is to say what? Jamaica is extraordinary but yet quite ordinary. What I have seen (though it may be changing) is that a large proportion of the daily violence that is reported occurs in a very small space.

Jamaica murder map
Jamaica murder map

Police reports often talk about ‘gang-related’ crimes. Let’s say that much of the violence is due to ‘turf wars’. Wherever that ‘turf’ is, the incidents related to it are concentrated. The metropolitan area of Kinston-St. Andrew and St. Catherine represents one of its prime areas.

We have, also, a lot of reported cases of domestic violence. Again, however, they seem to occur in some places more than others. (Notably, the parish of Manchester’s biggest crime problem is domestic violence, involving spouses, children, neighbours, landlords and tenants.) Peter Bunting, Minister of National Security, and an MP for a Manchester seat, launched another initiative this week to reduce that problem.

Are most disputes resolved peacefully? I’d think so. Is violence the norm? No. One of the puzzling things about society is that we can get to believe not what we know to be commonplace but what we see reported or told to us often, even if it is not commonplace. Jamaica has about 3 murders a day; that’s a lot for a small country. Many of us will know victims and assailants. Few of us will ever be witnesses, however. That does not mean that the threat to us all is not worrisome.

For all the reports that I hear and read about crime in Jamaica, I do not walk with anything like the fears I harboured living in London or Washington. Why? I’ve been told that the Jamaican variant is really focused on a subculture of the society. I may cross its path, but I think I can help myself by steering away from it, or making my encounters when things are more favourable, say in daylight not at dad of night. In London, I was living in the midst of terrorism, with bombers planting traps any and everywhere that large groups of people went. Mailboxes and garbage bins were places to hide parcel bombs. Train stations were targets. ALl parts of daily life held danger. Just look at the summary data on terrorist incidents in Britain.

Bus bombed in central London
Bus bombed in central London

Daily life was compromised, yet daily life went on. We took the best precautions we could. Public mailboxes were sealed in some places. Barriers were erected. Police presence became more common place. Sometimes, travel on the Underground was mayhem as the security was so heavy. Going out for a pint with your mates became a dice with death experience. That is not living, but it was daily life.

We lived in Washington DC during the time of the so-called ‘Beltway sniper attacks‘. It was around the time we were due to get married. We were out getting decorations at a store and got gasolene nearby, hours before there was a sniper attack on that same gas station.

Beltway sniper: Lee Boyd Malvo
Beltway sniper: Lee Boyd Malvo

That makes your knees knock. Friends would not come to our wedding from abroad because they feared for their lives. We were shocked further when the snipers were captured and one of them had a Jamaican connection. Oh, no! Our people, we thought.

The London and Washington experiences were harder because they involved crime as random events–the risks seemed evenly spread that we could be caught up in it; there was no place you could avoid easily. Alright, don’t go to work, or out to the pub, or take a train or walk in the park. Live a life in front of the TV or reading books and order in food, and somehow continue? I think not.

When I lived in England, people could not understand why I lived in an area, Tottenham, that was full of violence. It was rough, but it was to me, just a working class neighbourhood that offered great amenities and an easy commute to The City. True, one of London’s famous riots, at Broadwater Farm, happened in a housing estate five minutes walk from my house. I had no inclination to move to bucolic suburbs or rural areas; I could visit them whenever I wanted. I grew up as a Londoner and like it.

When I lived near Washington DC, and worked downtown, people outside the US knew DC to be the murder capital of America and again asked “Why go there?”. Again, the whole was true but the problem was really only in a part, mainly South East DC. I felt more trepidation because I did not know the city well at first. Over time, I got the measure of the place and went about my business blissfully ignorant of dangers. We faced other dangers because, after ‘9-11’, Washington became another target for terrorists. Roads were closed, barriers erected, security levels raised. Daily life became a hassle.

I’m not going to make light of Jamaica’s crime and the dilemmas it raises, but I am also not going to put it in front of my face as being something that is ‘sweeping the land’, despite what news reports or some commentators try to suggest. I may find myself held up today, or shot at this evening, or witness a robbery, or see and hear someone being violently attacked. I may be wrong, but I don’t have the impression that this is the Jamaica I or most people walk through each day. That it is the Jamaica for some is a problem and that I will tackle later. That some people have a wanton disregard for law, order, other people’s lives, I wont deny. That Jamaica has a social system that is broken or breaking, and a political system that is not really healing that, I wont argue. But, I will argue that ‘good’ has not yet given way to ‘evil’–and that is not to put a carrot in front of those who want to see it all in religious terms. To me, that’s important to hold on to and think about moving forward.