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Your money or your life

September 30, 2013

SOME time ago, the venerable Reader’s Digest made an attempt to ascertain which cities, or rather, their residents, were more or less honest.

This it did by carrying out an arbitrary social experiment: nearly 200 wallets were prepared by putting into them a family photo, coupons and cards carrying a business address, a mobile phone number and the equivalent of $50 in the local currency.

In 16 cities around the world, Reader’s Digest reporters ‘dropped’ 12 wallets in public places where they would be bound to be found.

It’s no surprise that the most honest city of all turned out to be Helsinki, where 11 wallets were returned — generally speaking, Scandinavian countries stand out in terms of high levels of prosperity and low crime rates. But if you’d thought that the link between prosperity and integrity was obvious, then you’d be wrong. Next in the level of honesty proved to be Mumbai, where nine wallets were returned. Budapest and New York City each saw eight purses returned, and seven each found their way back in Moscow and Amsterdam.

Berlin and Ljubljana had a 50pc success rate, with six of the 12 wallets being returned, while London and Warsaw clocked in at five. Four were sent back by some good Samaritans in Bucharest, Rio de Janeiro and Zurich, with Prague and Madrid occupying the next two rungs.

The least honest city, it turned out by this random scale, was Lisbon, where only one wallet was returned.

I would have liked to have seen Karachi having figured amongst the cities where this experiment was tried, but then perhaps the city and country’s reputation precludes such an investigation into levels of public honesty.

Not that I’d lay my money on none or very few wallets being returned here. Notwithstanding the very high rate of crime in the city, I’d still like to believe that there are plenty of good citizens out there who would do the right thing.

Yet the thing is, crime in the city is at levels that, were one not facing constant threat, would be silly.

Leave aside, for the purposes of this column, the big crimes that are committed every day in this megapolis, murder and extortion and so on. Being held at gunpoint at a busy traffic intersection, in broad daylight, is an experience so common that those to whom this has not happened would be in the minority.

Even in a city such as Karachi, most people don’t expect to be murdered, I would postulate. But they do expect to be mugged.

The muggers aren’t discriminate. You’re as likely to be relieved of your wallet and mobile phone if you’re riding on a bus as if you’re driving your own car. More likely, I’ve heard policemen say, because in a bus in an urban area there would be several people to loot all at once.

The only guarantee from being subjected to this particular crime, I’d imagine, is if you’re travelling under circumstances or in a vehicle that intimidate muggers.

So people who can afford it carry decoys; cheaper phones (not the cheapest; there have been incidents where muggers have been enraged at the meagre pickings available and become violent, or have been disbelieving and insisted on the production of more expensive items), wallets with a little bit of cash in them, a ring that they don’t like very much and could, at a pinch, stand the loss of.

If you have the nerve, you offer up the decoys, and hope your real phone, the actual wallet with the credit cards, remains with you.

In several instances, the experience of being mugged recounted by several people I know (travelling both in buses and in private cars) is bizarre in the casualness of the exchange. The man holding the gun is calm and businesslike, the victims resigned.

I’ve heard of identity cards being returned upon request, and some people I know had ignominy heaped on insult when the muggers took not just the handbags and mobile phones but the fresh fruit as well.

It doesn’t even escalate to the ‘your money or your life’ stage, it’s just an irritating, everyday phenomenon: you get unlucky. In most cases, people don’t even bother reporting the matter to the police.

What I find interesting about the muggings in Karachi is how well they demonstrate the theory that guns don’t just facilitate crime, they actually give rise to them.

In other words, a petty crime such as an opportunist mugging by young men A and B might simply not have happened had it not been for the ease with which the offenders could lay their hands on a gun.

In many theorists’ view, it’s not just that X has a gun because he’s a criminal, but also that if he has or has had access to a gun, he’s more likely to become a criminal.

From time to time the administrators of Karachi seem to recognise that this is a city simply awash with guns, and light upon some hare-brained scheme or the other to clean the mess up. Some time ago, they addressed the problem of the existence of illegal (unregistered, or of prohibited bore) weapons by deciding that they would register them, thus rendering a lot of illegal weapons legal in one fell swoop.

Last week, advertisements were published in newspapers asking owners of illegal weapons to turn them in. This is as likely to work in terms of de-weaponising the city as an ice cube being held up to a flame-thrower.

But a solution has to be found, for what makes a citizenry fearful on a daily basis is small-scale, immediate and up-close-and-personal crime. Controlling the number of guns on the street is the logical and crucial first step.

The writer is a member of staff.