The London riots: some questions
I've been thinking about a woman I met in Philadelphia some years ago, whose son had been shot dead in a trivial argument over a parking space.
"If I ever meet the man who shot him," she said, "I would ask him just one question: 'Where did all that anger come from?'"
The same question is being asked by many commentators today after three nights of violence on the streets of London. It's not my job to offer answers, but I am paid to ask questions. So here are some of them, and I'd be interested in your thoughts.
1. Is it a mistake to look for reasons why? Is the answer simply that what we've seen has been gangs of hooligans and criminals doing what hooligans and criminals always do?
2. Can we learn something by analysing the targets the rioters have chosen to attack? Electronic goods shops, sports goods shops, jewellers? All of which could be seen as "status" goods stockists? (Although I did see one report of a Tesco Express being looted by women snatching milk and nappies, which suggests that poverty may not always be irrelevant.)
3. Is the violence related in part to feelings of power and powerlessness? When an American TV reporter asked one young rioter last night what he thought the violence achieved, he is said to have been told: "You wouldn't have been talking to me without it, would you?"
4. Is inadequate parenting in part to blame? The woman I spoke to in Philadelphia said she believed the anger of many urban youths stemmed from a sense of betrayal by absent fathers. How many young rioters come from stable, loving, two-parent homes?
5. Should we be calling the violence London's "austerity protests", akin to the protests seen in Athens and elsewhere? Is it irrelevant that in Haringey, the borough which includes Tottenham, three-quarters of the youth clubs have been shut down because of budget cuts?
6. After several months of reports of law-breaking by politicians, police and press, have some London youths now decided that taking what you're not entitled to is something they can try as well?
7. Has gang culture now become so engrained in some London communities that obeying gang rules (follow orders, look strong, be brave, own the streets) is more important than obeying society's rules?
8. Why were the police apparently so slow to react when the violence spread from Tottenham on Saturday night? Are they under-staffed, under-resourced, or too demoralised by talk of deep cuts in police numbers?
9. Is the violence a predictable consequence of high youth unemployment and prolonged economic stagnation? Would more jobs mean less risk of riots?
10. And finally, why did so many years of painstaking community work in Tottenham, after the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985, with hugely improved relations between police and local people, come so catastrophically undone on Saturday evening? Was a key senior officer on holiday? Did the police not foresee that the shooting dead of a man in disputed circumstances was likely to lead to tension?