There is a tendency to consider reactions to the recent riots in London and elsewhere as being either one thing or the other. They are either about condemning and punishing the perpetrators, or as “excusing them” by seeking to explain the reasons for the disturbances in terms of economic and social causes. This is a mistake – it is often appropriate to consider problems at different levels. The atomic structure of a metal is analysed using different techniques than an analysis of its properties in construction. Individuals involved in violence, property destruction and looting must be brought to justice and punished appropriately. Anything else would undermine a crucial plank in our society – our system of individual justice for individual actions.
But there is another level at which we must look. The damage to property and to communities of recent events is vast. The costs of additional policing, judicial procedures and custodial sentences will add to this. Given what we know about many of the perpetrators of this violence and the effects of prison little may be achieved beyond making them even more detached from society. Our best option then is surely the prevention of such episodes in the future. Because what these disturbances should have made clear to us is that the lower bound of humans’ contribution to their society is not zero.
Whether we like it or not, we have to accept other people’s power to disrupt and make our lives intolerable. We then have a choice. We can either do nothing other than attempt to suppress this tendency by force and hope to deter by heavy punishment, or we can consider also whether our own actions bear some examination as to the causes at a social level. If we are prepared to do the latter we need to consider whether those actions might be changed to reduce the harm caused by these individuals, and perhaps even lead their social contribution to become positive.
The life of many young people appears circumscribed by dysfunctional parenting, disordered home lives, dangerous environments, struggling teachers and schools, poor prospects for employment and earning, and police fear and suspicion. These all feed on each other both in individuals and across communities. Opportunities for some alleviation appear to be presented to them mainly in the form of alcohol and drug escapism, gang membership and potentially lucrative criminal activity, particularly drug dealing.
The higher-level approach to this must look at both sides of the equation. We need support for parents, alternative accommodation where this is inadequate, additional educational support and pre-emptive community–relevant policing, alongside a business culture that increases rather than depletes the number of worthwhile occupational opportunities. An expensive list. But when the alternative is the attraction of gangsterism and drug-dealing, even this may not be enough. The most obvious way of reducing this attraction would be to take the drug trade out of the hands of the criminals. Drug use in itself is damaging to mental and physical health (as much because of adulteration and poor hygiene as pharmacological properties), but it is the rewards from the trade and the violent competition that goes with it that wrecks communities and drains our law-enforcement resources.