Two main viewpoints have emerged in attempting to explain the rioting that has spread across the country over the past week. The first, epitomised by the macho statements of various politicians and police chiefs, is that what we have witnessed is "pure criminality" carried out by "feral" youths. The second, more likely to be found in the liberal press, is that this is a "lost generation" expressing their anger and frustration in the only way they know how.
It's almost too soon to gain any sensible perspective on this frightening and depressing turn of events but I don't see why both of these views can't be true. Thousands of people – assumed to be mainly young but we don't actually know yet – have taken to the streets since Friday. Much as we might like simple answers, it's just not possible that all of them have the same reasons for doing so.
There is certainly a hefty dose of what looks like teenage rebellion in the mix: of wanting to be in on the action with little or no thought for the consequences; of having a laugh with your mates and picking up as much "free stuff" as you can on the way; of sticking two fingers up at anything that represents authority. There is also a heartless, thuggish and criminal element that is taking full advantage of the chaos: anyone who has read about the three men killed in Birmingham or watched coverage of a group of young men mugging another young man as he stood confused and bleeding in the street can be in no doubt of that.
But there are also very real grievances that can't be ignored. Young people, especially those who live in poor areas and particularly those who have black or brown skin, are routinely harassed by the police. They are also a lot more clued up than most people give them credit. They might not be carrying banners saying "Who Killed Mark Duggan?" or "Murdoch corrupts cops" in an orderly manner towards New Scotland Yard, but they are very definitely police-baiting: they are smashing up their own communities and daring the police to do something about it.
There also seems to be an air of general hopelessness. Access to higher education is now restricted to those who can pay; one in five young people looking for work are unemployed – one in two amongst ethnic minority youngsters; youth clubs and other services are closing their doors. As the cuts begin to bite, many of these young people's parents are losing their jobs. The very fact that so many have been prepared to loot and destroy in broad daylight with no attempt to conceal their identities shows how little they feel they have to lose.
Like robots reading from a script, politician after politician has appeared on our screens to condemn the violence, recite how many people have been arrested and promise tough recourse for those involved. It's difficult for people whose main hardship is having to cut short a Tuscan holiday to understand where this explosion of anger might have come from. It's also understandable for the rest of us to want the violence to stop and the perpetrators to be punished. But if we don't at least try to understand what could have made our children act with such collective madness, what's to stop it happening again?
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