Understanding the Riots is Essential to Preventing More

Understanding the Riots is Essential to Preventing More

This week's riots have sparked a frenzy of arguments and accusations, with anyone who even mentions possible motives quickly condemned.

"This," proclaimed the Daily Mail on Tuesday, "is criminality pure and simple."

Unfortunately, the causes are neither pure nor simple, and Britain must ask why this is happening.

Let me pause to say the people responsible for this violence and vandalism should be caught and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Hopefully we all agree on that.

In the short term, flooding the streets with police officers and restoring order must be the priority, but after that we must do more than just punish criminals. We need to work out why people have joined the riots and stop more from doing the same. Some may be hardened criminals, but many rioters are teenagers and some are even younger than that.

For most young people, joining the riots would be a huge risk both in terms of safety and the possibility of a criminal conviction, but it appears rioters feel they have nothing to lose. After all, even if you had no moral objections, would you loot a shop in full view of TV cameras, photographers and police officers? Probably not. You'd expect to be arrested, which could mean losing your job, then maybe your home, and so on.

Unfortunately, many rioters do not share these fears.

Most riots have happened in deprived areas where young people have few prospects. Labour MP David Winnick spoke about the "toxic mix" of perceived police racism coupled with "continuing deprivation, growing unemployment (and) a feeling of lack of opportunity."

Though nothing can excuse the appalling behaviour we have seen this week, outbursts of criminality are unsurprising given the vast divide between Britain's rich and poor, a problem exacerbated by our money-hungry, celebrity-obsessed society.

That is not to say the riots are politically motivated - no such intelligent thought is behind the violence - but inequality plays a role in raising tensions.

More police and harsher punishments might act as a deterrent, but such moves in isolation will only reinforce the cycle of anger. Investing in education and other services for young people could save money - and possibly lives - in future. People are less likely to commit crime if they have something to lose, and only by offering opportunities can we stop more young people falling in with the rioters.

In Afghanistan there is talk of winning "hearts and minds", but British society has work to do to prove it cares about young people. We need to reject the lazy propaganda that many are "feral thugs" and instead deal with the issues which drive a small proportion to criminality.

The rioters on the streets have earned the nation's scorn, but many more might follow if all we offer them is cuts, crime and punishment.


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