The London riots began on Saturday the 6th, with the worst of the attacks being on Monday night, where more than a dozen locations in London, from East to West, from affluent to poor, were under attack by mobs of youngsters stealing, looting, and terrorizing. Cars and buses were set on fire, shops, restaurants broken into, homes vandalized and in some cases burned to the ground, and so far four people have died because of the violence. Looters hijacked a peaceful vigil for the unjust shooting by police of one man.
There is a social malaise in Britain which has been festering for quite some time, a true sense of purposelessness which is particularly infectious in communities that have given rise to these rioters. This purposelessness infects their general attitude to everything, even in the way they riot. They simply do this because they can, and that they have nothing to lose.
Why else do we have people stealing a mere two Gucci t-shirts? The saddest thing of all is that two Gucci t-shirts are, in the industrialized West, not a large sum of money in the long-term. We cannot compare the poverty of the UK to the poverty of some African and Asian countries (indeed, these riots were coordinated by teens using Blackberry Messenger). Yet the criminal record that comes after stealing two t-shirts will be a huge burden on one’s life and employment prospects. More than 1500 people have been arrested across England, and probably many more will be as the police regain control. The task of bringing so many of these misguided youths back into society seems impossibly daunting.
The first thing that needs to be done is that they must understand that they are a part of society. Whatever their grievances – and I suspect some of them do not, and simply were swept up in the mob hysteria of their peers and the adrenaline and opportunity of nicking some expensive items – looting and ransacking and burning down the property of others is never the way to address those grievances. If I were angry with the government (and there is plenty to be unhappy about the current one), why would I go out and trash my neighbour’s restaurant or bar, and steal money from their tills? It simply does not make sense; there is no connection except the fact that many of these teens have no hope of owning a resturant or working in a bar. They need an appropriate channel in which to funnel their frustrations. The basic fabric that ties a society together has no effect on them: adult discipline, social belonging and a sense of duty to at least oneself, if not society. Of course, there have been important exceptions, such as the 31-year-old teacher who was arrested for participating in the rioting. Education is therefore important, but not in the mundane sense of which subjects to teach. Rather, the importance of education is highlighted in its spiritual component, by instilling values of civility, virtue, and open-mindedness or a hunger for knowledge. This may seem blatantly old-fashioned and obvious. But it is telling that not a single bookstore was looted in the riots – only fashion stores, pubs, restaurants, and even baby clothing shops. It is unlikely you will find a looter wondering whether he should steal A Tale of Two Cities or Pride and Prejudice – because if he were interested in books to begin with he might not even have been on the streets these last few nights.
If we tried to look the other way and avert our gazes on this uncomfortable reality, the last few nights proved that we are only delaying the need to apply some urgent but also long-term solutions. Over a thousand youths have been arrested, which means close to a thousand youths are going to be jeopardizing their futures, even as those futures were unfairly stunted by poverty, social alienation, discrimination, and a host of other factors that may or may not have given rise to the shocking violence of the riots. It is true that the government has made plenty of mistakes, and continues to overlook the cries of those who need to be listened most.
But looting, burning, and plundering is not the way to get the right kind of attention, especially if that attention is in the form of police sirens, batons, horses, and armoured vehicles.