Saturday, February 3, 2007

On security, the human nature and moral principles

The following could be read on BBC News some days ago (extract):

Two killed in Kenyan carjacking

Armed men shot dead two female passengers as they carjacked a US embassy vehicle near the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. At least one of the women appeared to have been shot for not getting out of the vehicle quickly enough. Carjackings are common in and around the Kenyan capital but they usually take place at night.”

When we started to look for a new posting abroad, we were seriously considering Nairobi as an option. We both love Kenya and its people; it is a truly amazing country. The main reason that we nevertheless didn’t pursue this in the end was related to safety. We knew that the rate of violent crime in Nairobi is very high. We were also aware that even if you are lucky enough not to be directly affected by the violence, your everyday life will become considerably restrained, living behind bars, hiring armed guards 24/7, and being forced to live with a constant fear – if not for your self, certainly for your family members. Adding to this the risk of being injured or killed in a traffic accident, the choice was clear.

Against this background, I was touched by the story of the two women. It could have been me and my family. The fact that someone can end the lives of two women just to get hold of a car is of course incomprehensible to most of us. And very frightening.

This is not only a problem in some developing countries. When I arrived to New York for my first UN meeting in the mid 90s, I was told to take great care, avoid certain areas and never walk alone during nighttime. Crime rates were surging, and New York was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the US, if not in the world. I used to think that the TV series the Hill Street Blues gave an accurate description of the crime scene in New York – and maybe it did. I recall being almost terrified one particular night when, convinced by a friend, we decided to go to a ragged night club somewhere in the Bronx.

Before and during the time we lived in New York (2000-2003) however, crime rates went down dramatically. New York nowadays is considered one of the safest mega-cities worldwide. Many give credit for this to the Mayor of New York at the time, Rudolph Giuliani, who was said to introduce an innovative law enforcement system to quench minor offenses and thereby eventually avoiding also heavy crimes. Others say that police tactics had little to do with it, and that the reduced crime was a consequence of increased economic wealth. Yet others would argue that the crime didn’t actually disappear at all, but only moved outside the city borders. I am not sure which account is more correct – perhaps all of them.

Cape Verde, our new temporarily permanent home, has a widespread (and generally very well deserved) reputation of being a friendly and peaceful place. Nevertheless, contrary to the general feeling of ease and safety actually experienced when moving around in Praia, security seems to have become an issue also here – be it on a very different scale than in Kenya. Burglaries and thefts are clearly on the rise, and we have heard numerous stories about people that have suffered from looting, pick-pocketing or break-ins. Also violence seems to be increasing. Recently, an 18 year old youth went home and grabbed a kitchen knife, went back to school and stabbed a class-mate to death in one of the gymnasiums in Praia. The event was the talk of the town last week, and most people seem to say that this deed would have been impossible some years ago. They see it as a striking sign of the rise of violence in Cape Verde.

I could be recalled that some decades ago, Nairobi was known to one of the safest countries in Africa. Could it be that Praia is taking a similar route as Nairobi? I would hope not. But the fact is that I write this text behind massive iron bars. Despite my aversion against prison-like homes, our office space, like the rest of the house, is heavily protected. Behind me, the small back yard is completely sheltered by high concrete walls, partly covered by glass and nails on top to avoid unwelcome visitors. Following the advice of the UN, we have hired (unarmed) guards almost 24/7, increased the height of the outer wall and changed the security lock.

Philosophically, all of this makes me wonder about the “true nature” of human beings. Are we murderous and selfish creatures, killing and injuring at will? Or are we kind and empathic, caring and generous at heart? And if we really are born generous and good-natured, how can we as humans carry out such atrocities as we apparently do, in so great numbers? How can in certain situations the most precious asset we have, human life, become of so little value?

As far as I can tell, people who commit crimes of the sort described above are driven by a sense of utter despair and hopelessness. Also, they probably believe they can do it with little or no consequence. I am quite convinced that man is born neither “good” nor “evil”, but becomes product of the society he is raised in. We are no doubt biologically predisposed in one direction or the other (just look at the obvious gender differences when it comes to the use of violence), but in the end I think we are all capable of being either Mother Theresa or Adolf Hitler, or anything in between. How we actually turn out will be the effect of the people we meet, the values we are taught and the society we learn to know.

I would also hold the view that all persons are responsible for their actions. A “bad childhood” can not excuse actions that bring suffering or death to another. Still, the question remains whether a person who has had no education or experience in moral values should be held fully responsible for actions that go against those values. Maybe this was the case in the Nairobi killings.

In order to seriously abate violence, you therefore need a society based on universally accepted moral principles that are effectively taught to and applied by everybody, as well as an efficient law enforcement system that puts those who violate these principles before justice. But this is far from enough. The same society also needs to nurture a sense of responsibility, integrity and empathy, and it must be founded on equal opportunities and inclusiveness. Otherwise, you will still find people desperate enough to commit violent crime, as an act of despair.

How then to define the correct moral principles? That is more difficult than one would think. I would, like the utilitarian philosopher Bentham, contest any set of pre-given or inherent moral principles, such as those deriving from the world religions or (however ingeniously) suggested by some other philosophers like Kant. Such principle would never work, since they are bound to be outdated, biased and skewed.

Rather, I would advocate a combined utilitarian and relativistic approach, using a consensus-building process to identify (and subsequently possibly revise) principles that universally minimizes fear for death and suffering.

In fact, such a set of principles already exists. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights ( was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. I consider this the best attempt we have so far to lay down universal basic principles to guide our society morally. However, the Declaration is not legally binding, and any analysis of the state of the world today would conclude that it is far from fully applied or enforced everywhere – not even by some of the wealthiest and democratic states themselves. Nor is it taught to everyone. One day, hopefully, it will become fully integrated into national law in all countries, and a real source of security for all human beings.

As finalize this text, I learn from the internet that over 120 people have been killed due to a suicide bomber driving a truck with explosives into a crowded marketplace in Baghdad. Yet another act of incomprehensible, meaningless and callous violence. It is so easy to become cynical and to resign in the face of these cruelties – but that would be the same as to give in to the perpetrators of violence. For cynicism equals giving up hope, thereby indirectly contributing to continued violence.

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