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Homerton and Hebdo: Thoughts on Violence in and From the Margins

It is one thing for some of the world's leaders to march for freedom of expression. Well done that they did so, even if some of them were being more than a little hypocritical. But freedom of expression should be used to help build a more just and fair world. Let millions march for that too.

On Wednesday last week, as the world knows, three men attacked the staff of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, killing 12 people and wounding eight. The night before a 17-year-old was murdered just off the high street in Homerton, east London, about 15 minutes' walk from where I live.

In and around Paris, by the end of Friday, the death toll had reached 20, including two of the three killers, plus a third man, who himself had killed five more.

This is horrible yet it is massively over-shadowed in viciousness and misery by the massacre of 2,000 by Boko Haram in Baga, Nigeria, and by their use of children as suicide bombers. The world of politics and media can be very selective in what few horrors it prioritises among the many available.

But over the weekend I found myself mostly thinking not about the large-scale horrors, but about last Tuesday's teenage death, probably for no better reason than that it was closest to home.

Put the knives down

Reportedly, the boy got in a fight, was chased into a side road and was stabbed three times. Reportedly, it was gang related. The newspaper ran with his family's view of him: an excellent student; he had got in with "the wrong crowd". He had given up an earlier ambition to do business studies at university. His uncle went from his own particular reason for grief to the general, telling teenagers in gangs to get out: "Just put the knives down and concentrate on education."

In London, by Friday, this year's murder toll was nine in nine days. In London, knife crime and other killings do happen, but we are not accustomed to one a day.

Not the murder alone, but what the dead boy's uncle said got me thinking about my own son, aged five. He's in Year One at a really good Hackney primary school. The school where the dead boy used to go is one of the two obvious choices for secondary schooling in our neighbourhood. I don't have fears about my son and gangs but, to be honest, I could well worry about where some of his friends could be in 10 to 12 years' time.

Pressures on the young

Why? At least three pressures. One is social and economic marginalisation, which means exclusion from the goods that many in modern society take for granted. Another is growing inequality, and the increasing gap between hope and expectation on the one hand and likely reality on the other. I don't think I am being complacent when I say that some of my son's friends may be more vulnerable to those pressures than he, and more vulnerable than some of his other friends. It's a very mixed school.

And the third pressure I'm talking about is exerted on young men by models of masculinity - of what it is to be a man - that are based on the idea of man as the provider, the protector, the achiever, the stalwart and the strong. These models are pervasive. They fly in the face of social reality and it takes an ever more desperate act to sustain them.

Of course, that pressure of masculinity is also felt - and acutely - by girls. Some become the direct and indirect victims of the sexual aggression and predation that it leads to, and some are damaged almost as much by assuming the role of the compliant, complicit survivor in an aggressively male-run reality.

International Alert has been looking at some of this. A Peace Focus paper we published last November looks quite prescient in the light of the Charlie Hebdo horror. The paper draws out the political implications of growing marginalisation and inequality, in an age when faith in political institutions is declining. It is especially interesting about the role of "divisive narratives" in corroding trust, solidarity and community.

One group

Now, however, thinking about Homerton and Hebdo, I want to focus a bit on the behavioural and social issues that help explain the politics. For the gang members who knifed a teenager on Tuesday, and that poor boy himself, and the killers who struck in Paris, along with other European youth drawn to the jihadis and wanting to fight in Syria, as well as with those who wouldn't go themselves but support or sympathise with those who do - all of them are part of the same group.

The biographies of the Paris killers have already started to be dissected. Here's Britain's Daily Mail: "Paris jihadis were orphan petty criminals." Losers, dopeheads, criminals, marginal - then jihadis. The Guardian has a predictably more measured tone, but it's basically the same story there:

"...poor school records and chaotic family lives ... deprived corners of the surrounding 19th arrondissement in north-eastern Paris ... a patchwor of high-rises troubled by gang turf-wars ... mainly unemployed or in small jobs ... involved in petty crime, theft, drugs, trafficking. But then they met a young charismatic guru."

Cause/no cause

Maybe it's about there that the tale of the jihadis and the tale of the gang-members diverge. Maybe both found places to go, probably with strong-looking leaders, and that seemed to help them get a sense of belonging and a degree of self-respect. But one went to something that could depict itself as a cause and the other did not.

With the aid of a cause, most have been going off to Syria and Iraq. Some few have brought the violence from the margins into the centre of the societies where they live: March 2004 in Madrid, July 2005 in London, last week in Paris. Without the cause, in the gangs violence tends to stay mostly in the margins. It is at least equally destructive for society.

Some years back, as the financial system crashed, advanced economies burned, unemployment soared and strife ignited, there started to be expressions of concern about people who were turning 20 around then becoming "a lost generation". Amid the wastelands of austerity Europe, with unemployment, under employment, low paid and unrewarding work, and in the UK with the special iniquity and permanent insecurity of the zero-hour contract, it is easy to recognise the members of the lost generation.

Or as a French analyst said when referring to Wednesday's killers, "Les enfants perdues de la République" - the lost children. They are the same. Jihadis are motivated by what they see as the injustice the west perpetrates against the divided world of Islam. Some of that injustice is real, some not. And real or not, it doesn't matter compared to knowing that murder is murder and murder is wrong.

But motivation is not the whole story. What creates a pool of possible jihadis among whom the killers can be found by somebody who is clever and ruthless enough - that is equally important. And what creates that pool is largely what creates the pool of possible gang members. The journey they take has the same starting point, some comparable milestones along the way, if a different destination.

At some point, in France and Britain and throughout Europe, if we want ultimately to dry jihadi recruitment to less than a trickle, if we want my son's friends to grow up with a much reduced risk of finding the gangs attractive, if we want peace in our societies, whatever else we do we will have to address the pressures of marginalisation, rising inequality and aggressive masculine role models that combine to push the young into losing their way. And to return to the larger scale, that had better be part of a global process easing inequality down, or the people of Nigeria and elsewhere will have little chance of release from the horrors that now threaten.

It is one thing for some of the world's leaders to march for freedom of expression. Well done that they did so, even if some of them were being more than a little hypocritical. But freedom of expression should be used to help build a more just and fair world. Let millions march for that too.

Photo: Je Suis Charlie solidarity march, Paris, January 2015. Courtesy of Gwenael Piaser. Some rights reserved.

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