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The Day of the Martyrs
A solution to violence: ever more violence?
On January 9, 1964, after a series of Zonian flag raising demostrations that began with a defiant act by a Canal Zone cop and took place in a festive atmosphere, a little group of radical high school students from the Instituto Nacional marched with their flag to Balboa High, there was a scuffle, and by the time the smoke cleared a few days later more than two dozen human beings had lost their lives. It was the beginning of the end for the Canal Zone.
Now, 45 years later --- as from the very start --- this watershed event in Panamanian history is the subject of much deliberate distortion and outright falsification, lame scholarship and induced amnesia. Both Panama and the United States need to rescue this history.
It's relevant now, in a Panamanian election year, to notice that both of the historical mainstream political movements in this country have shamelessly falsified the roles that their leaders played.
Yes, the Panamanian kids who went to Balboa High were of a leftist fringe. But the reaction that was touched off when they came back with their torn flag came from almost every sector of Panamanian society. The Day of the Martyrs wasn't a contrived little leftist conspiracy, or, as so many old Zonians still believe, a plot hatched by Fidel Castro. It was a heartfelt protest by a Panamanian nation that demanded to be made whole.
Omar Torrijos did not lead the protests, as the most obnoxious of the dictatorship's propaganda suggested. He was flown by the US Army from David to France Field to help suppress the furious fighting in Colon.
Arnulfo Arias wasn't the nationalist leader who got the 1964 election stolen from him by the military. He was the pompous and aloof elitist who denigrated the protests and lost that year's election because of it. (Want to see just how pompous? Check out that creepy monument that his supporters built in Balboa.)
Few of us who remember those days have no gray hairs. It's time for oral historians, archivists, political scientists, educators and patriots --- both Panamanian and American --- to compile, analyze, publish, copy and preserve the historical record.
Sounds like a trite Sunday school question, a hippie no-brainer, something only for the hopelessly naive to consider.
Well, certain neighborhoods in Panama are living through an awful downward spiral into ever worse violence. It's no longer shocking enough to be the lead story when some toddler gets shot by rival youth gangs fighting over "control" of some city corner or apartment building. When a cop is killed in the line of duty, or when the police gun down some unarmed person who did nothing to provoke the use of deadly force, it just doesn't seem to be a big deal to many people anymore.
Oh, yes. We have heard the "solution." Let's take the restraints off of the police, pass tougher laws, put more people in prison for longer terms under more brutal conditions. That ought to solve things.
Well, there have been a few little gaps in that policy, but that's essentially what Panama has done and it hasn't brought things under control in this country's most dangerous neighborhoods. We have our longer prison sentences, we have more violent cops, we have more people in custody under more hellish conditions --- and so what? What do the politicians have to show for all of that?
(Yes, we also tried "sociological" approaches, like putting allegedly former gang members on the first lady's payroll, where they have at the very least made convenient scapegoats in the theft of more than 35 tons of bronze sculptures in Vivian Torrijos's custody.)
Yes, a boy who shoots up a neighborhood needs to be removed from public circulation forthwith whether or not he kills or wounds anybody, and juveniles who kill need to be kept apart from society well into their adult years. Set concepts of just retribution, rehabilitation and reciprocity aside when making such decisions, because protecting the public trumps all of those concerns. But then there does come a time when the control, management and cost of inmates become important issues, and there will in almost all cases come a time when society has to figure out a way to safely put these individuals back onto the streets.
The problems that create violence in society are many and often complex. Some of the ways to reduce them are simple and well known, but rarely are they cheap.
If you have kids growing up in misery with no expectation of anything better, a bunch of them are going to turn to antisocial behavior no matter how draconian the penalties for it. If you have an economic and social order that gives them attractive and realistic options, there will be fewer such problems.
If, on the one hand, the lot of working people is exploitation and scorn from an entrenched privileged caste to which hardly anybody not born into it can aspire to rise; and on the other hand every slum kid sees the illegal drug trade as the most realistic way to obtain the trappings of wealth and privilege, should anybody be surprised at a generation of gangsters?
Oh, but the Americans have a plan, the Merida Initiative, to deal with that. Law enforcement agencies across the region will be militarized and armed so that they can win The War on Drugs --- just like they did in Plan Colombia. That the allegation of Plan Colombia's success at stemming the flow of illegal drugs is a psychotic delusion doesn't seem to stop people with more money and power than brains at their disposition from basing regional policies upon it. Never mind that the drug lords have repeatedly shown that they have infiltrated Panamanian government and law enforcement agencies at every level --- more and fancier weapons, more people in prison and a "hard hand" will solve everything.
And if someone, for some reason, dares to resist by force of arms? Well, that's terrorism and the solution to that is pain, death and destruction. Torture chambers, tanks, planes, artillery and bullets --- those will solve the problem, won't they? That's why nobody attacks Israel anymore, right? That's how the death squads of the 80s made El Salvador and Guatemala the peaceful societies they are today, right?
All societies and governments are from time to time obliged to resort to violence to defend themselves, and those times occasionally come for individuals, too. But the resort to force is necessary far less often than politicians and Hollywood culture lead the public to believe, and turns out to be counter-productive far more often that a lot of people are willing to admit.
The world and its regions, nations, societies, neighborhoods, families and individuals need to become more sophisticated about "the security issue." More violence rarely solves anything, especially when that's the sole remedy under consideration.
Bear in mind...
In Latin America, you don't do things for the money because there is no money.
Gael García Bernal
Reasonable orders are easy enough to obey; it is capricious, bureaucratic or plain idiotic demands that form the habit of discipline.
Throughout the history of mankind there have been murderers and tyrants; and while it may seem momentarily that they have the upper hand, they have always fallen. Always.
Mohandas K. Gandhi
2008 by Eric Jackson
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