Once regarded as an exemplar of decency and civilised living, parents in suburbs of Britain’s capital now fear for the lives of their children going out to meet their peers or even popping down to the nearest corner shop.
Week after week, the stabbings continue. Violent death stalks the young of our cities like a bacillus ready to strike at random. It is amazing that we have stood back and watched this wretched tide of misery rise with almost a detached equanimity. But something happened a few days ago which seemed to shake us out of our torpor. Last week, in quick succession, two seventeen dear old white children – a girl and a boy – died.
It is a terrible thing to suggest, but I believe society gave every impression of not wanting to over-exercise its concerns because the killings have very largely been confined to the non-white community. It was black on black, and mainly part of a gang culture which had developed. How mortifying that must seem to the families of all those other kids who have died to hear the alarm bells suddenly ring and note the attention which the two recent deaths have attracted. Were their children not as worthy of equal attention?
I do not think it fanciful to suggest that if this epidemic of stabbings were happening to white children, the army would be on the streets by now.
There was an echo in all this of the working class public’s justified rage at the efforts and astronomic sums dedicated to the search for the high profile and professional class’s child, Madeline McCann. Were their children not also going missing? Why was Madeline so special? And where was the fairness in a system that only took notice and opened its purse-strings when it happened to the favoured ones in society.
Now that the wider public have finally woken up to what is happening in its cities, we have to pose the question: what is to be done? First, we have to identify the drivers of knife crime. There is no single cause – there seldom ever is – but in my book, lack of prospects must feature highly. Any youngster not benefiting from a stable family life, a decent education and challenging/enjoyable extracurricular activities is fodder for the gang leaders.
No single factor contributes more to a youngster going off the rails than the lack of a father figure in family life. And no community in the country suffers more from this of this than people of Caribbean ethnicity. Sadly, people in this community are the very ones hardest hit by the killings.
If you do not accept this argument about the importance of a father figure, ask yourself this question: how many Jewish mothers are left to get on with it because papa has done a runner? And when was the last time you heard of a Jewish boy being arraigned in court for a knifing, or indeed for any anti-social activity? That is because family life is so cohesive and all-embracing. You could almost say suffocating. The sheer shame of letting down not just your family but your community is enough.
When there is a father figure, why doesn’t dad do his own Stop and Search before his boy steps out on to the street? I know that if I lived in one of the affected areas, I couldn’t live with the thought that my boy might be armed and dangerous. I would have to satisfy myself.
Then there is the matter of policing the streets. If a cast iron assurance were to be extracted from every one of the forty-three constabularies in England and Wales that those twenty thousand cuts in police numbers would be reinstated on condition that every last one went into front line service, we could expect something quite dramatic. Even the peddling of drugs would take a severe hammering. The new officers swamping the streets would come to be seen as the nation’s protectors. They could be expected in their role to accumulate from a grateful populace veritable mountains of evidence as to where the baddies were hanging out. When arrests came, they should be processed in double quick time instead of the hours each arraignment presently takes. That in itself puts a lot of officers off making arrests.
Then we must reinstate the youth clubs and all the related facilities, which were so ubiquitous in former times. When a young person at a loose end leaves the house knowing that his mates are just down the road at the youth club, rather than hanging about on the street corner, he is much less likely to see someone he can pick a fight with to impress his peers.
Of course, so much of the downward spiral begins with school exclusions. While a disruptive pupil cannot be allowed to erode the life chances of his classmates, equally he must not feel that society has washed its hands of him, like in so many cases the father has. Funds must be made available to schools to manage such pupils in a positive and inclusive way. Being chucked out of school and bumping into classmates on the streets later is almost certain to foster a burning resentment that can only lead to trouble, as well as humiliation, for the one that society regarded as a reject. If he cannot gain acceptance anywhere, he will seek it from the last redoubt of what we unkindly regard as the loser: the gang. There he will set about burnishing his credentials by doing something dramatic. A killing in that world would do very nicely. One way or another, a young person will seek the respect of their peers, even if has to be gained at the point of a knife.
What is needed on the part of society is an intelligent and proactive response to all the issues. Compassion for what has gone wrong in the lives of the perpetrators should lie at the heart of it.