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Alan Miller

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Does Britain Suffer From a "Stabbing Culture"? Let's Cut Through The Nonsense.

Posted: 08/14/08 09:30 AM ET

Britain is currently consumed with an extremely unhealthy obsession with knife crime. The Daily Mail suggested that there was a "blade epidemic" and that it was "out of control" after several tragic, unrelated incidents in different parts of the countries lead to deaths within a 24 hour period.

While many of the teens readily confess to 'not really knowing what is going on', so too do the police. However, in what would appear to be a classic case of 'Moral Panic-king' this has not prevented the new Mayor of London, Boris Johnson from declaring that Britain has a "stabbing culture" while the Deputy Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson announced that knife crime should replace terrorism as a top priority for crime prevention. It may not be as straight forward as old fashioned Moral Panics go though.

Of course it is utterly tragic when anyone, particularly very young people, die in such needless circumstances. It seems almost embarrassingly banal to point this out. Yet we should also take on board that, thankfully, a tiny proportion of young people fall victim to such incidents. In fact, as The Metropolitan Police Crime Figures demonstrate it has dropped by 15.7 per cent over the past two years, from 12,122 to 10,220 incidents. Even so, while many have reported and recognized this, it often seems to 'fall on deaf ears' so to speak. Like the debate about paedophilia, many parents know abductions and assaults have not increased empirically over the past 20 years, but the sense in which things are out of control seems to pervade every discussion. Thus when UK Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair the police points out that murder in London is not "out of control" and that it has actually fallen over the past five years, knife crime and out of control youth is on the tip of everyone's tongue.

Boris Johnson has introduced a series of random searches across London that would make the most ardent promoters of The US Patriot Act blush. Originally conceived to deal with the darling of Moral Panics, the "football hooligan", Section 60 of the Public Order Act is being used to target young people. This fits in to the model whereby a problem is presented in very dramatic terms and the response 'something must be done and now' invites a disproportionate response.

As some have pointed out, there is nothing new in the idea of "juvenile delinquents" or juvenile criminals. So too with Moral Panics, where certain groups or types of behaviour are presented as being grave threats to society and our particular way of life. In Britain, the "hooligan" has been with us for a long time , since 1898. The "hooligan" has been resuscitated at various junctures, to serve a political purpose, often to demonise sections of society and galvanise a sense of the decent (us) versus those beyond the pale (them). While it certainly is the case that in Britain and America there has been an increasing tendency for politicians to criminalize all sorts of personal behaviour, one of the most glaring issues today is that, as Stuart Waiton, journalist and commentator on youth issues has commented, what appears to characterize the contemporary debate is more of an 'Amoral Panic'.

Unlike earlier Moral Panics where certain sections in society were presented as "folk devils" and "juvenile delinquents", such as the outcry over "garrotting" in the 1860's, razor gangs in the 1930s, Teddy Boys in the 1950's and Skin Heads in the 1970's - these days, concerns that are primarily still with young people, such as the obsession with so-called "hoodies", young people who wear hooded tops, may well reflect the breakdown in consensus and confidence of adults in society, rather than a more specific notion of a challenge to a particular set of values and rules.

In a world where relativism prevails and "your truth is as valid as my truth" there is little in the conventional sense of morality to be challenged. Rather it seems, what we are witnessing is a breakdown in adult society. Not wanting to or being incapable of directly engaging with the tough, complex moral questions of our time, authorities seem predisposed to present certain (thankfully) very rare tragedies as some form of existential signifier of our times. The hard handed response, as well as being an attack on civil liberties, may end up encouraging the very thing they wish to prevent. After all, we don't have to see Paris Hilton debunking the McCain election video to realise that if all the adults seem to be obsessing about one thing, it may be quite "cool" in the end to do something else. Worse, if the message is promoted that crime and "knife culture" is a threat to us all and adults are too scared or incapable of dealing with it, more young people may well end up carrying knives.

To put the UK figures in to context with international comparisons, Colombia has 84.4 killings per 100,000 and across Africa the average was 17.6 killings per 100,000 young people. In Russia 18 homicides per 100,000 were recorded while in the USA the comparable figure was 11. The UK meanwhile has 0.9 killings for every 100,000 young people. As Afro Reggae, a group that travels across the world playing to young people told one youthful audience in Hackney, east London, "Hackney is far better than the favelas."

So while many people, from family members, friends and co-workers to national pundits and commentators seem to be convinced we live in an far less safe world, a far more insecure world may be more to the mark. As Robert Putnam noted in his seminal work "Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community" we are increasingly isolated and experience the world in an atomised, insular way. It is not difficult to understand why threats seem to be creating a new notion of how we live, whereby we are at risk from life generally. Young people in particular experience this isolation in very acute forms.

So while Boris Johnson gears up policing yet warns young people "not to get involved" if they witness any incidents, he is merely echoing the general sense in which the sense that society has broken down and adults have no sense of shared values - and they "won't hold the line with young people." "Stranger danger" whether on university campuses or life more generally has come to epitomise how we see our fellow citizen unfortunately. Spurious technical reactions to imagined out of control behaviour, whether knife crime or "binge-drinking" or "anti-social behaviour" simply reinforces the very sense in which we are all at risk from a mad and bad world - and people.

While we no longer fear the "unruly mob" or beast-like "frenzied mob" as in the time of Gustav Le Bon, our current malaise, where we are petrified of everything around us and cannot decide on what it is exactly that society should represent, or be about, or engage people with is one that is far more problematic and potentially destabilising. It is high time we got a grip and stop obsessing about frightening ideas of out of control youth wielding knives and guns - and got on with providing a real lead to our youth that they would be proud to emulate and inspired to reproduce.

 

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