The violence in Britain
A sudden and shocking event like the recent explosion of rioting in Britain seems to work as a sort of Rorschach blot; people see in it whatever they are inclined to see anyway. Various pundits have blamed various factors -- racism, inequality, consumerism, absent fathers, an "entitlement culture", the Conservative government's austerity policies, etc. -- and their degree of certainty that they have pinpointed the correct explanation seems inversely propor- tional to their actual knowledge of the facts on the ground. Much of the commentary boils down to "This just proves the rightness and importance of whatever it is that I personally have been saying all along."
It will probably be weeks before a real picture of what happened and why emerges, but a few things are becoming clear:
1) The role of race is far from straightforward. The rioting started in Tottenham, a largely-black area of London, but as it spread across the country, people of other ethnicities, including whites, started participating.
2) The violence was not an expression of a social or political agenda. The rioters were mostly young, mainly interested in looting, and have not been reported expressing any political motives beyond a few trite clichés about sticking it to the rich.
3) The authorities' initial response was disastrously hesitant and inadequate.
4) The victims of the riots -- those whose businesses and homes were wrecked -- seem to be mostly members of ethnic minorities. In almost every news report I've seen about the victims, they were people of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent.
This year several European countries including Britain have seen mass protests against austerity and conservative policies that can legitimately be compared with the Arab rebellions; so, over here, has Wisconsin. This rioting was not like that. It was an eruption of meaningless looting and destructiveness -- all the more shocking and horrifying because Britain has traditionally been one of the world's most peaceful and orderly societies.
If there is a political dimension, it will emerge not from the rioting itself but from the slow official response and who gets the blame. Despite numerous early calls for the police to use water cannons to restore order (including from London's leftist former mayor, Ken Livingstone), the Conservative government seems to have dithered for days. Shopkeepers in the victimized communities began organizing to protect themselves -- in one of the few deadly incidents, three men in Birmingham were deliberately run down and killed by a car as they tried to protect their neighborhood -- but in at least some cases the police, so far from supporting these efforts at self-defense, actively opposed them. It's no wonder that people have gotten angry.
The government is already under a cloud. Its austerity policies have strangled the country's nascent economic recovery and have been widely protested, and the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal has tainted it. Warnings last year that planned cuts to the police force would endanger civil society now look prescient; while the cuts had not yet been implemented, the government still insists that they will go ahead -- and is blaming the police for the early mishandling of the riots. The police have fired back, blaming the government.
At the moment, it seems that stronger tactics and the deployment of more police have restored order. The courts, overwhelmed by hundreds of arrests, are showing toughness not usually associated with British justice.
But tremendous damage has been done, and there is great anger against the mobs and against the authorities' failure to deal with the problem quickly. Much will depend on where public opinion ultimately fixes the blame.
I'll give the last word to the most inspiring part of the story: the countless ordinary people in all the great cities of Britain who spontaneously came together to protect themselves and their communities.