Opinion: An eye for an eye

POSTED: 09/28/11 12:07 PM

We had it coming of course, with all the violent crimes that terrorize the island, but an increasing number of law-abiding citizens start thinking about tit for tat – and eye for an eye.

That is a worrisome trend, but it is definitely there. When criminals shoot other criminals – a bad habit among drug dealers for instance – most people do not become overly concerned, unless they are in the same trade. But when criminals start shooting ordinary citizens, like shopkeeper Mark Deygoo, the perception of crime changes drastically – and rightly so.

Many stores on Front Street are still open to the public in the literal sense. While the air conditioning is softly blowing inside, the doors are wide open to welcome customers. Several stores have a security guard posted at the door, but these guards are unarmed and they are also not a big deterrent for criminals who intend to storm a store armed to the teeth.

In some Muslim countries, an eye for an eye is taken literally. If you steal and get caught, someone chops of your hand. But in western society we also know the principle; we call it the death penalty. We don’t want to get into that discussion again, but we just want to point out that the principle is not unique to Muslim countries.

How would an eye for an eye work on Front Street? We don’t think that shopkeepers ought to arm themselves. Such an arms race with criminals usually ends badly. Innocent people might get shot, and criminals might go for more firepower. A baseball bat? That’s a very popular item among Dutch bar-owners and small store-owners in robbery-prone environments.

Somehow we think that the most practical answer at the moment is literally more blue on the streets, especially during critical times. Stores are most vulnerable to robberies near closing time because that is when criminals suspect that store-owners have the most cash around.

There are tons of solutions to discourage this kind of thinking. Store-owner could go several times during the day to the bank, thereby diminishing the amount of cash in the store towards closing time. They could also install a safe with a timer that makes it impossible to get access to the cash or other valuables inside immediately.

Camera systems do not always deter criminals. If they are desperate enough, they will commit the crime anyway, and if they have to pull the trigger to get what they want, they’ll do that as well.

So store-owners have to protect themselves. A lock on the door that can only be opened by the staff inside would help. Wearing bullet proof vests is probably a stretch, though it would not hurt either.

One thing is certain: people are afraid, wondering who the next victim will be. And people who had St. Maarten in mind as their vacation destination or as their place under the sun for buying an interesting piece of real estate will think twice, and then they will decide to go somewhere else.

Curbing crime is a community effort. People must acquire a habit of reporting unusual things. We just heard a story from a store-owner who noticed a man dressed in black sitting in front of his store early morning. The man wore a hood and he had a bandana around his neck (an indicator for gang membership). The store owner went to talk to him and the man claimed that he was on vacation; he kind of ignored the suggestion that he was not exactly dressed for a good time in the sun. When the store-owner called the police, it took an hour before somebody showed up.

This example shows an active involvement from a store-owner who did not trust the situation, and a relatively slow response from the police. That in turn will discourage others to take the same approach. A community effort requires the cooperation from all – citizens and police force alike. It will not turn St. Maarten into the elusive crime free society this government has promised the people, but it will certainly help to create a safer environment for everyone.

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