We think only of our own success; of course we walk on by

The Home Secretary in his suit, fastidiously dodging the Coke tins and syringes as he visits the dismal sink estate, trading platitudes as he meets members of the so-called "community", is a familiar sight on the box and in the paper. It's a reassuring image that lessens our guilt - someone is showing that we care.

Those he visits are not taken in, however - as the people on the North Peckham Estate tell Robert Chesshyre (see page 14), they know that politicians come to visit only when there has been a murder or another headline-grabbing disaster on their estate.

Equally familiar is the follow-up to the walk-about: the knee-jerk legislation that will impose a curfew on teenagers, or ban the sale of knives. Often, the impetus goes further, and policy- making, too, lurches forward. For nothing concentrates the ministerial mind so wonderfully as the prospect of a crime spree, a riot and, ultimately, electoral defeat. Faced with the possible consequences of a ten-year-old boy bleeding to death in one of south London's more squalid neighbourhoods, the government moves into overdrive in order to control the damage and, sometimes, to fix what's wrong.

The problem is, this is one wrong that zero tolerance or "three strikes and you're out" won't fix. Our response to Damilola Taylor's death is a chorus of horror and a public chest-beating session - the ritual that now surrounds those who, through their terrible fate, are elevated by the media to "celebrity victim" status. But our response to him when alive (and probably even when he was fatally wounded and literally bleeding to death) was to walk on by.

Yet why should anyone be surprised that there was no Florence Nightingale that day to help save the young boy? We are no longer conditioned by the common ethics that once influenced our dealings with everyone, every day. It is useless for our libertarian commentators, in the wake of Damilola's killing, to pull out of the woodwork words such as values and duty, community and responsibility. These words have lost their meaning. Like French, say, or yoga, morality requires practice; it cannot be episodic. But where are we to get this practice? Not in the society we live in now. Can you name your neighbours? Does your father live at home? Do you expect to be married to the same person for more than five years? Increasingly, the answer is no. Worse, with our reflexes no longer in tune with the ethics of "us", our focus is exclusively on making a success out of "me" - usually at the expense of just about everyone else. This explains why we are no longer in the habit of loving or respecting, or even being curious about, others. Yet it is in the most quotidian give and take with those around us that we practise morality.

In this light, the politician on his touchy-feely rounds is marginally less hypocritical than the commentators - especially of the left - who bemoan our moral rootlessness while happily ignoring their contribution to it. For decades, these liberal pundits have mocked traditional values as antiquated and the preserve of a bigoted moral majority. They have scoffed at the faithful as fantasists, and smeared every church (and increasingly, church school) as a den of paedophiles. Simultaneously, they have promoted the ethos of me, whereby only personal advancement counts and only the famous merit our attention. Thanks to these writers and broadcasters, and the institutions that give them a platform from which to preach, we are shy of talking about ethical dilemmas and loath to seek the moral high ground - unless we face a crisis, that is. But until a boy is murdered on an estate such as North Peckham, we are perfectly happy to allow for its existence - despite the abject poverty, crime and chaos.

We have turned ethics into a sideshow. This is a real drama - and it looks set to play and play.