Nothing can justify or excuse the terrifying wave of violent lawlessness that swept through London and other British cities earlier this month. Hardworking people in struggling neighborhoods were its principal victims. Public support for racial and ethnic coexistence also suffered a damaging, and we fear lasting, blow.
The perpetrators must be punished, the police must improve their riot control techniques, and Prime Minister David Cameron’s government must do all it can to make such episodes less likely in the future. We are more confident about the first two happening than the third.
Mr. Cameron, a product of Britain’s upper classes and schools, has blamed the looting and burning on a compound of national moral decline, bad parenting and perverse inner-city subcultures.
Would he find similar blame — this time in the culture of the well housed and well off — for Britain’s recent tabloid phone hacking scandals or the egregious abuse of expense accounts by members of Parliament?
Crimes are crimes whoever commits them. And the duty of government is to protect the law-abiding, not to engage in simplistic and divisive moralizing that fails to distinguish between criminals, victims and helpless relatives and bystanders.
The thousands who were arrested last week for looting and for more violent crimes should face the penalties that are prescribed by law. But Mr. Cameron is not content to stop there. He talks about cutting off government benefits even to minor offenders and evicting them — and, in a repellent form of collective punishment, perhaps their families, too — from the publicly supported housing in which one of every six Britons lives.
He has also called for blocking access to social networks like Twitter during future outbreaks. And he has cheered on the excessive sentences some judges have been handing out for even minor offenses.
Such draconian proposals often win public applause in the traumatized aftermath of riots. But Mr. Cameron, and his Liberal Democrat coalition partners, should know better. They risk long-term damage to Britain’s already fraying social compact.
Making poor people poorer will not make them less likely to steal. Making them, or their families, homeless will not promote respect for the law. Trying to shut down the Internet in neighborhoods would be an appalling violation of civil liberties and a threat to public safety, denying vital real-time information to frightened residents.
Britain’s urban wastelands need constructive attention from the Cameron government, not just punishment. His government’s wrongheaded austerity policies have meant fewer public sector jobs and social services. Even police strength is scheduled to be cut. The poor are generally more dependent on government than the affluent, so they have been hit the hardest.
What Britain’s sputtering economy really needs is short-term stimulus, not more budget cutting. Unfortunately, there is no sign that Mr. Cameron has figured that out. But, at a minimum, burdens need to be more fairly shared between rich and poor — not as a reward to anyone, but because it is right.
Fair play is one traditional British value we have always admired. And one we fear is increasingly at risk.
A fine article. Nice that the NYT is well informed on our PM and his policies.
There were many contributing factors, but one has escaped the attention of most commentators. I managed to source an inside perspective from a Police Officer – and I think his opinion is an important one. It also explained the reason why there were riots in England and not Scotland.
My blog entry is obscenely long – and maybe just plain obscene – but the police insight is early on.
Anyway, thanks for posting this.
Thank you for your comment. I read your – long – post with interest.
I lived in England in the late 1990ies and later in America. Coming from a small and rich country with distinctive socialist attitude, I could not believe the existence ” no-go” areas. I have been exploring cities with my bicycle and more than once I was escorted into “safety” by a friendly police patrol, who thought I was insane to have crossed the imaginary boundaries in the first place. A ” no-go” area is the first step to social unrest.
There are many, many reasons – but only one cause: greed. Greed is in all of us, it means striving, entitlement, hoarding, ignoring those in need. We all do it. This is how we have been brought up, the beliefs of inequality have been confirmed by the educational system and influenced by society. What happened in England, happens in other places as well – we just don’t hear about it and maybe it’s smaller in scale. But the potential is there.
What to do about it ? Quiet reflection of what it is we really are seeing here. The “invisible” shadows coming forward, with their hooded faces and mobile phones. Lost children and adolescents who never got a chance and have been forgotten, neglected and pushed into “ghettos” by a system that favors materialism over humanism.
And I don’t speak of England. I speak of you and I.
I agree. But Western Societies are largely run by the ‘Greediest’ and in the interests of ‘Greed’. We used to be better at redistributing wealth; at public ownership and fair taxation, but with ‘Greed’ in charge, I don’t have much hope of governments reversing this trend.
There’s always the ballot box, but can you find a party that wants to risk the wrath of the rich; and the powerful, and consequently, the establishment and the media?
Don’t know what the answer is. Any suggestions?
I think you are not alone with this sentiment.
It is becoming glaringly obvious that political systems have been serving the interest of an elite, with the help of the media. Markets have been created and the financial system took on it’s own momentum, before it started to implode.
What I see is a new and direct Democracy on the rise. maybe we will no longer need political systems, just talented administrators.
For the time being I agree with you – there is really no responsible choice in terms of a party moving against mainstream.
It always starts with ourselves, does it not ? If the world today is largely a product of fear and greed, than my first job is to recognise my own tendencies in that respect and correct the course. Sounds like not much – but things like this do change the world.