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In a state of denial

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

If it existed today, the National Union of Freedom Fighters of 1971-1973 would be considered to be a “terrorist” organisation. By the time the group eventually disbanded, it had launched violent attacks on several police outposts and were responsible for the deaths of three police officers and injuries to many more. In the process, 15 “guerrilla fighters” were killed by the police.

They staged robberies to finance their operations, benefited from subversive support from “legitimate” hifalutin quarters, including people who eventually transitioned to mainstream politics, brought fear to rural districts and sought recruits from among a cohort of young, disenchanted and restless men and women.

Yes, I know the whole “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” story. I have also listened carefully over the years to attempts to conflate this entire episode with the struggle to achieve social justice going back to the birth of the labour movement in the 1930s and the legitimate aims of the 1970 Black Power Movement. But history has not provided satisfactory absolution on this, for we have never applied serious intellectual rigour in dissecting these events and their linkages, if any.

The fact however remains that the use or threat of violence, including the means to execute such threats, existed at that time and, in the end, people lost their lives, were injured and a climate of fear prevailed. In other words, some essential ingredients for the existence of “terrorism” were in evidence.

One might say that a natural nexus existed between that movement of 1973 and the events leading to the failed, bloody attempted coup d’état of 1990. It is perhaps best personified through the participation of the Andy Thomas of 1973 who later became the Abdullah Omawale of 1990.

By then, our tiny republic had already witnessed the fire-bombing of the Empire cinema in Port-of-Spain over the screening of Victory at Entebbe in 1976, the still unresolved 1983 bombings at the Ahmadiyyah conference in Marabella and the 1985 murder of Islamic scholar Aslam al Qureshi in Freeport—episodes attributed to the work of dark underworld networks we would these days describe as “terrorist cells.”

We must also never forget (successive governments have) the name, Yvonne McIvor, who lost a leg in a downtown Port-of-Spain bombing in 2005. This was dismissed by some—who dared not believe that “terrorists” reside alongside us—as the work of unsophisticated pranksters. In fact, successive explosions in St James and downtown Port-of-Spain ought to have reminded us of what we were actually confronting at that time.

If we wish to, we could also get into the circumstances surrounding the 2011 conviction of the late Kareem Ibrahim in the United States for “conspiring to commit (a) terrorist attack at JFK Airport”—to use the words of one FBI dispatch.

Many years later, I was approached by a US journalist investigating the 2014 killing of Dana Seetahal who was able to rattle off a succession of incidents including some of those I have mentioned, together with news that some nationals had run off to join Daesh in Syria and Iraq.

All of this to make the point that in dismissing the obiter dicta remarks of MSNBC correspondent, Malcolm Nance, it would not be enough to cite the fact that nobody resident in T&T has been classified as a “terrorist” in accordance with international security protocols. This is a mere technicality.

I have also noticed the inability of politicians to avoid bashing each other over the head in such matters. This should be the subject of serious non-partisan discussion and agreement. Such a discourse is not best suited to a cantankerous parliamentary “debate” as currently being proposed. It requires a national platform involving all key stakeholders.

The thing is, if we were not all in denial about what is unfolding before our eyes, there would have been a much higher level of vigilance and precision in dealing with matters of national security in our little country. For, we have been royal slackers.

I will always remember attending a meeting with then acting prime minister Winston Dookeran in the days following the 1990 failed attempted coup d’état on behalf of the Media Association.

To my shock, Lennox Grant and I made our way up to see Mr Dookeran without, in my opinion, having been extensively checked. Nobody bothered to examine the hefty recorder in my bag, for instance.

Fast forward to just a few days ago when social media users were taken aback by scenes at Piarco International Airport—a group of young women shamelessly punching each other and wrestling in full glare of everyone.

In today’s world, any kind of violent disruption at a public facility such as an international airport is promptly addressed by the speedy appearance of several branches of state security applying full and immediate force.

Instead, what followed were the polite interventions of the usually bellicose airport security (I have been bouffed by many for forgetting to take off my belt) and continued violence.

It might well be that associating the airport incident with our general state of denial is a bit of a stretch. Kick me. But, as someone who heard the shots that killed ASP Roger George as terrorists entered parliament 26 and a half years ago, I am not comforted by any claims of innocence in such matters. This is no Nance-sense.

The thing is, if we were not all in denial about what is unfolding before our eyes, there would have been a much higher level of vigilance and precision in dealing with matters of national security in our little country. For, we have been royal slackers.


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