LONDON – The images of burning buildings and looting of shops that took place between Aug. 5 and 9 in parts of London and other major cities, including Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, have rightly made the English people ashamed. The damage caused has been serious and some families have lost their homes and all their possessions. Some of the rioting was organized by gangs of hooded youths coordinated via social-networking sites such as Twitter. Much of the looting was inspired by infectious greed. Sports shops were among those looted; 30 shops out of 250 in one chain were attacked.
The riots were ended as a result of tough action by the police. When it looked as though mayhem might spread and that law and order was breaking down, some called for the use by the police of rubber bullets, water cannon and tear gas as used in other countries. Others called for curfews in riot spots and even for the army to be called in. Fortunately none of these measures proved necessary.
Over 2,000 people have been arrested and are being tried for various offenses including looting, arson, robbery, and in two cases murder. In London half of those being brought before the courts were teenagers. Much to the dismay of magistrates and judges some parents did not attend the courts to help their children.
In Birmingham three Asian men who were trying to protect their property were run down and killed by a car driven at them at high speed. In London a man confronting vandals was set upon and died of his injuries. In both cases arrests have been made on suspicion of murder.
In another case a Malaysian student whose jaw had been broken by muggers was then robbed by youths who pretended to help him. Despite a call by his mother to return to Malaysia the student has said that he wants to stay in Britain to complete his course of study.
Rioting and looting did not occur everywhere. In many parts of London and other cities there were no violent manifestations and there seemed no threat on the normally peaceful streets. The civic-minded volunteered to help clear up the mess amid many other acts of good citizenship. The father of one of the young Asian men murdered in Birmingham made a persuasive appeal for calm.
Prime Minister David Cameron and other senior politicians, who were almost all away on holiday, rushed home. Parliament, which was in recess, was recalled and the violence and looting were unanimously condemned. The government made it clear that the criminals would be pursued by the full force of the law. CCTV images of rioters and looters have been displayed in the media and calls made for witnesses to come forward. The police have been continuing to make arrests and to search for stolen goods.
Questions have been asked about the failure of the police at first to react with sufficient numbers of officers on the streets and about their tactics. Initially the police hung back while shop windows were being smashed. The police seemed mistakenly to believe that the rioters were peaceful protesters angered by the shooting of an armed black man by a policeman. In previous peaceful demonstrations the police had been criticized for overreacting and being high-handed.
The British police are generally unarmed and are supposed to use a soft touch in order not to exacerbate tensions. By the time they realized that tougher measures were needed the contagion had spread and it took time before they could bring the situation under control.
Police morale has been low following accusations in the phone hacking scandal of police collusion with sensational journalists on the News of The World and of accepting payments from News International, the paper’s owners. This scandal had forced the resignation of the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London and of his deputy.
Attention is now being focused on the underlying causes of this bout of mid-summer madness. Cameron has spoken of sick elements in society and the loss of a sense of responsibility. Poor parenting and a lack of discipline at home, especially in one parent families without a father figure, and in schools have also been blamed. In some families mothers are said to be frightened of their own children. But some of those arrested were grown-ups with jobs. One of the first to appear before magistrates was a 32-year-old teaching assistant.
The speed in which violence spread has been ascribed to the gang culture in inner cities. On the political left there has been a tendency to attribute unemployment and lack of opportunities for young people as root causes. The left also blame the police for their use of stop and search powers that, they say, have alienated the young. They also assert that the greed of bankers and the fraudulent behavior of some politicians with their expenses scandals have set bad examples.
These are all factors which may have contributed to the riots, but the fundamental problem lies in the decline of ethical standards. The welfare state has created a society where rights are more important than obligations. The driving force has been greed and envy.
There are no easy solutions. Tough police action and tougher punishments may be necessary but they will not succeed in effecting a long term cure. Prison is necessary to protect society against violent criminals. But for most criminals it is a revolving door. They emerge without being reformed and their only training has been in learning how to commit more crimes.
Some have called for the removal of welfare benefits from those convicted in the recent rioting, but throwing people out of social housing and denying them other benefits may simply lead to increased crime. The first priority must be to improve education and impose discipline. People with work must be better off than those on benefits. All parties agree on these objectives, but adequate progress has not been made in implementing them.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.