At the height of this spring’s Egyptian popular uprising, as we all marveled not just at the courage but the self-discipline of crowds mustered in their millions in the cause of individual rights and dignity, in London a rioting student from a pampered background casually chucked a fire extinguisher from a roof into the crowded streets below. Britain was demeaned by that comparison. Similarly, it is demeaned today by the contrast between the citizens’ revolts against dictatorship in Libya and Syria and the opportunistic trashing of great tracts of London’s streets by lawless gangs of youths bent, as two teenage girls boastfully put it, on “showing the police, and showing the rich, that we can do whatever we want.” Their “rich” victims have been mostly small neighborhood shops—wantonly set ablaze as often as looted—and families living in gutted small apartments above those shops.
To describe last Thursday’s fatal shooting by police of a young black man, Mark Duggan, as a “trigger,” let alone a cause, of this mayhem is far wide of the mark. The friends and relatives who descended on the police station in Tottenham, north London, to demand answers were angry but nonviolent, and although Tottenham has a high proportion of unemployed black youth, it is no longer the police no-go area it was in 1985, when a machete and knife-wielding mob hacked Police Constable Keith Blakelock to death.
The rioters who torched and thieved their way through Tottenham on Saturday were not out to avenge Duggan’s death: they were out to exploit it. To claim the streets as theirs, for laughs, for loot, and for the power-buzz of terrifying people, of seeing them panic and of seeing outnumbered police back away from their brick, bottle, and firebomb onslaughts. As thousands of them then did in relatively deprived Archway, Bethnal Green, Hackney, and Peckham; in leafy suburban East Dulwich, Ealing, and Croydon; and in affluent Chelsea and Notting Hill—anywhere the whim took them. In numbers far beyond the capacity of any metropolitan police force to contain. In numbers at which the mob instinct takes over and lawlessness, adroitly manipulated by gang leaders, breaks free of normal inhibitions about getting caught.
To blame this orgy of violence on “government cuts,” as the left-wing former mayor of London Ken Livingston shamelessly has done, is also wrong. Not only have the cuts, while real, still for the most part to make any serious impact, “cuts” is a cop-out excuse for inexcusable behavior for which we all, as citizens, are collectively responsible. We have seen this coming and we have done, we have dared to do, pathetically little about its root cause: the collapse in Britain of parenting and, beyond that, of our readiness to take individual and collective responsibility for the fact that, as a nation, we seem to have become afraid of teenage children.
There is an excuse for everything. If they behave appallingly, they are “hyper-active,” and if they learn nothing, they are either dyslexic or have attention-deficit disorder. If they are juvenile criminals, they may, in extremis, be subjected to ASBOS, “anti-social behavior orders,” rather as though they had farted, not mugged a 90-year-old for her pensioner’s purse. We have passed edgily by hooded teenage groups on street corners, even while David Cameron, then in opposition, urged us to “hug a hoodie.” Hug a hoodie? Try asking one of these 13-year-olds to pick up the spent can of extra-strength cider he has just chucked under your feet. There are sink schools where teachers count it as a really successful day when they got through roll call without a riot, and actually teaching is an optional extra. Teachers are told to work more closely with parents on children’s behavior, but as my teacher niece explodes, “Find me a parent, for starters! And then find me a parent who isn’t going to threaten to report me, or worse, for dissing her kid.”
In the British Museum recently, I (fairly) politely told a child to stop rubbing an ancient Assyrian statue with its chocolate-sticky fingers; as the museum guard looked on, her mother came at me like the Furies, saying she’d have me thrown out for verbal assault on the little pest. Poor parents have forgotten how to say “no” to the child demanding Nike trainers for his or her fast-growing feet, or iPods, or the expensive Blackberries that so many of the supposedly badly deprived teenage rioters have used to orchestrate trouble.
We are asking the impossible of the police: they cannot remedy society’s sloppiness about inculcating moral values, making clear what are the normal rules of conduct, and teaching children that they have responsibilities toward others that go together with respect for their own rights. And when riots happen, we tend to blame the police for their arrogance toward the most arrogant semiliterate cohort of kids this country has ever bred. Particularly if the cohort in question is heavily composed of minorities—as in cosmopolitan London it almost always will be. This has been building up for decades, beginning with Lord Scarman’s report on the 1981 Brixton riots, which implied that until the ethnic composition of the police force reflected “the society they serve,” they somehow lacked legitimacy as law enforcers. Battered again by the McPherson report in 1999, this time for “institutionalized racism,” fear of offending minority sensibilities became even more of an obsession with London’s Metropolitan Police than it already was among teachers in Britain’s inner-city schools. This has ended by undermining the cardinal policing principle, a “without fear or favor” impartiality and equal treatment for all.
A generation of senior police officers has earned promotion by learning the language of social workers, of “racism issues” and moral relativism clothed as cultural sensitivity. In Tottenham, nervous cops at first held back, sensitive to the anger the Duggan shooting had engendered, hoping that the British police’s preferred tools of “persuasion, advice, and warning” would forestall the need for a more forceful response even as shop windows started shattering: in their anxiety to avoid another Tottenham riot, they treated the riot that was breaking out as though it was a demonstration. London burns in consequence. But it is we as a society, not the beleaguered police, who gave these Blackberry-and-brick-armed juvenile fiends the idea that “anything goes.” London is fighting back hearteningly now, with Twitter citizen armies wielding brooms and mops, buckets, and duct tape. And they are cheering every police vehicle they see. Now let’s sort out those children of ours.