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Keeping the riots in proportion

What these exceptional events mean, and do not mean.

So the riots have continued for a third evening. However, in terms of overall crime figures in the communities directly affected, they are unlikely to be statistically significant. Nationally, the criminality of the riots may register as no more than a blip. 

This is not to be callous about the vile lawlessness of what has happened in Tottenham, Ealing, and elsewhere. The pictures of burned out cars and looted shops are real enough. But one main difference between the current riots and the on-going criminality in urban environments is its concentration under an attentive media glare. Nonetheless, every day in every town, people lose their possessions and their businesses because of casual crime, and this is rarely reported on by the media. 

Whatever the significance of the recent riots, it is not that there has been an explosion of crime. If crime figures are an index of a broken society, then society this month will not be that much more broken than last month, or next month. 

What is important is the nature of the current criminality and the assumptions that it unsettles. For any sensible person living in a city these riots are frightening. Instead of urban crime being a background buzz which, unless one is unlucky, is something which happens to other people, these riots appear to present an immediate and disconcerting threat for two reasons. 

First, one can readily imagine the disorder and attendant violence happening in one's own street or shopping centre: if it can happen in Enfield, it can really happen in any suburb. In an instant, every suburb seems potentially unsafe. 

Second, the fact that these riots even occurred indicates the apparent impotence of the police. There was no one there to stop it happening or to make it go away. This adds a stark sense of further vulnerability to the feeling that public and private places are now inherently unsafe. 

The psychological impact of the riots is that criminality is something which now could happen to you in any part of a city. And these rioters are not the noble protesters who pose for pictures whilst swinging from war memorials; they are instead criminals as likely to beat up a press photographer as a rival gang member. What was somebody else's problem is now a mob that seems willing and able to strike randomly. 

What this in turn will mean is that there will be calls for more policing, and far more police powers. People's fears will need to be allayed by gestures; everyone will need to feel safe again. A liberal approach to law and order will now seem to many as simply inappropriate and misconceived. But there is no good reason to introduce water cannon and rubber bullets. Indeed, in seemingly exceptional times, it is more important to adhere to the rule of law and the normal exercise of police powers.

There may be another riot tonight, or there may be calm. There may be another bout of looting, or there may be preventative police action. But when these riots are over, this new sense of fear may well remain. Society will not have broken, at least not in any objective manner; but people's confidence that things will always be alright for them in their daily urban lives could perhaps be broken instead.