The flood of images is terrifying yet compelling. Media portrayals of urban conflict have been something of a mainstay this year, but these aren’t the streets of some far-flung totalitarian regime we’re seeing, but our own: red buses blaze against a backdrop of familiar signage, of JD Sports, HMV and Greggs, a bizarre juxtaposition of bland high-street ubiquity and violent disorder.
Twitter’s stream is scrolling too fast to read, like the scene-setting narrative at the opening of a dystopia. In between the horror and the outrage, the spread of rumour and the attribution of blame, there’s the bewildered, baffled question: why?
Already there have been plenty of answers, as editors and bloggers compete to frame events through the prism of their own agendas. The Guardian is looking to Coalition cuts, to a police force neutered by redundancies and a youth robbed of hope by a dire economy and an absence of opportunities. The Mail points at schools, at an education system that, they claim, has failed to instill a sense of discipline and respect. The BNP, predictably, attributes the unrest to a failure of multiculturalism, but these are not race riots. At least one newspaper has invoked the old perennial, Grand Theft Auto, and there are growing calls from an array of morons to ‘ban Facebook and Twitter’, even though the looting has largely been coordinated through Blackberry Messenger.
Everyone has solutions, none of them particularly good. Most involve an escalation in the police response, from water cannons to live ammunition, curfews to martial law. Some commentators are claiming that the perpetrators are terrorists, and should be treated as such. Others state that apologists for the mob should themselves be prosecuted, as though an attempt to understand somehow makes you complicit.
But it’s precisely understanding that we need. To cast our children as the enemy will only exacerbate the conflict further, increasing the gulf between those of us nervously awaiting nightfall and those eagerly preparing for it. One consequence of the fevered, breathless coverage rolling across our screens is that we’re giving the rioters status, magnifying their actions and conferring power onto people that have likely never wielded it before. ‘Night The Mob Took Charge’ ran the MailOnline’s headline today: how attractive it must be, for those who live their lives being ignored, to suddenly feel in control. The talk of these events being the work of an ‘underclass’ is unpleasant but not without some truth – there are a lot of people currently excluded from society, labelled failures by our education system, passed over by employers and playing no part in social discourse. Our appeals for them to consider the consequences of their actions upon wider society are having no effect, precisely because they aren’t really a part of society, instead ghettoised, marginalised and held in contempt.
To be feared by us is to have gained influence over us, and certainly these images, of masked youths, hooded and shadowed, make us afraid. But what use is fear? Instead of poring over the destruction behind heavy curtains in darkened rooms we need to celebrate those who stand against it: the woman in Hackney who faced down the mob, the journalist who bravely approached the looters within his own community despite the reports of press being attacked elsewhere, the thousands upon thousands who assisted in the clean-up efforts today. Put these people on the front pages, let their deeds become the headlines, and let us all take to the streets to confront those that would destroy them.
We cannot allow ourselves to become afraid of our youth, however intimidating they may be. Those words are much easier to type than they are to live up to, but this must be the response that we aspire to. Of course, there needs to be action too. We need the government to respond decisively, but also cautiously – these events cannot become a catalyst for a further round of curtailments of our freedoms. As the New Statesmen has argued, we need to maintain a sense of perspective, lest we elevate the actions of a mob into something much more frightening. This is not a war, nor are we witnessing the breakdown of society. We’re seeing some kids run around, smashing things because they lack the empathy to consider their actions and stealing things because they haven’t earned the money to buy them.
They are, we must repeat, again and again until the reality replaces the media presentation, the minority. A tiny minority that risks beyond elevated to a much more potent role, that of the nightmare, towering and ill-defined, which we can never hope to overcome.