Tuesday, July 15, 2008


We're in the middle of a fully-fledged moral panic. Everyone has been, or is about to me, stabbed to death with knives. Or, failing that, is a knife-wielding hoodie about to stab you (cue the Beeb's hilarious shots of yoovs with butcher's knives).

Oddly, everything looked peaceful this morning. What's going on?

I awoke to an absurd discussion on the radio yesterday morning. Some chap from a northwestern accident and emergency ward was reacting to what he and many others believed were government plans to ferry young knife carriers around casualty departments as he and his colleagues attempted to patch up the victims of stabbings.

The doctor's rather obvious objection that neither the suturing medics nor the suffering patients would appreciate such a distraction, wasn't diminished by the fact that no one in government was actually suggesting any such thing.

No, ministers' ambitions were limited to having visits to the wards. Even so, the doctor summoned up an unexpected expertise to say that even such less dramatic mechanisms for confronting young people with the consequences of crime had been shown (in the US, of course) not to work.

I have no idea how he knew this, but when it comes to the prevailing moral panic, we are all experts now. Top experts, naturally, are the Government, about to unveil (or unleash?) their latest youth crime action plan. What is actually going on in the first place?

Only yards behind are the other political parties, each with their own very definite views on what ought and what ought not to be done about knife crime, and the newspapers, whose certainty concerning remedies is matched only by their total confusion as to what the problem actually is.

Is it gangs? Is it just young men and boys? Is it just knives, or guns too? Is it all attacks with bladed instruments? Is the incidence rising or falling? Is it younger victims and perpetrators that are the problem here?

If so, what are the figures, once we subtract older people, purely domestic violence and unusual (if horrific) killings, such as that of the two French students in South London? I want to remind readers of the total pointlessness of including, for instance, the murder of a husband by his wife's brother in a statistic that is then used to indicate the problem of casual street crime.

And if people think that they know what is going on, perhaps they could explain to me why knife crime was almost static in London between the second half of 2007 and the first half of 2008, had increased by nearly 20 per cent in Northumbria, but had halved in Derbyshire.

Had there been a sudden outbreak of divorceless marriage in Derby round about 1992? Or a fashionable run on shivs in Newcastle this January? And what differences in parenting, imprisonment, policing, schooling or social conditions help us to understand why knife crime levels in Scotland are 3.5 times higher than in England or Wales?

I am not saying that nothing is happening. I am saying that in most discussion of this subject - and particularly in those involving politicians and the media - there is darkness rather than light.

That this is a fully-fledged moral panic is evident when the father of the recently murdered Jimmy Mizen speaks about couples who have told him that they were thinking of not having children at all because they fear their children being murdered.

This - statistically, at any rate - is half as sensible as staying childless because of a fear of filial suicide. As far as we can tell, violent crime, which had climbed for three decades, has now fallen by something like 40 per cent since 1995, and the proportion of that involving knives has not changed much. True, one problem with these statistics is that they don't include the under-16s. They will soon, and that at least we can all agree about.

So, for this problem that - in so far as we can quantify it - isn't much worse than it was, and is carried out for reasons we don't fully understand, we now have a plethora of instant solutions. Much of this involves prison, not just for knife wielders, but for that very different category, knife carriers.

With Gordon Brown knife carriers get jail or “community payback”, with David Cameron they can “expect” a spell in the slammer. Meanwhile, for the Liberal Democrats, Chris Huhne derides the Government for being in past denial about knife crime, but may care to explain why, in their January 2007 document Together We Can Cut Crime the un-denying Lib Dems failed to mention the word “knife” or “knives” on a single occasion.

Are knives so epiphenomenal, that they have taken just 18 months to become a big social problem? “Prison is the only place for knife carriers,” opines The Daily Telegraph, adding - without an iota of supporting evidence - that “the ‘shock' of a spell in prison, even of short duration, will be far more potent deterrent than one of Miss Smith's hospital visits”.

That depends, doesn't it, on why you are carrying the knife in the first place, something that we still don't know. No, I'm sorry, of course we do. It's the Daily Mail's “breakdown of the family and education system”. Or, as David Cameron put it, too many young people “do not recognise a sense of right or wrong”.

And the evidence for this contention is what, precisely? Of all the things that I imagine I observe about young people today, a failure to discuss moral or ethical values is the least characteristic.

We have been here before. Guns last year, flick knives in 1958, razor gangs in 1938, skinhead aggro in 1970 (when steel-capped boots were the weapon), mods and rockers in 1964, young men and boys stabbed or shot or stomped by other young men outside pubs, clubs, dancehalls and stadiums.

In many cases it was just luck that separated the victim from the perpetrator. That point was poignantly made by Alice Miles in these pages recently.

I can't help wondering whether what may be behind any recent real rise in knife crimes, is precisely the recent unreal moral panic over knives. Everyone hears that everyone else is carrying, so they carry too; and if you buy a ticket for the fatal lottery sometimes you win.

It is striking, of course, that almost all those involved in casual knife fatalities are young males. In The Times yesterday there was a story about young girls self-harming, suggesting an unpleasant symmetry - the brothers stab others, the sisters stab themselves. But we start, don't we, with offended masculinity, fear and peer pressure, and work from there?

We might look at actually giving the recent £3 million anti-knife advertising campaign some time to work, at developing non-prison forms of deterrence, at televising court procedures in cases of violence, at simultaneously diminishing the amount of violence-as-entertainment on television and in cinemas, at outlawing violence against children, at reinstituting civility in the public sphere, starting with ourselves. Anything but the present pathetic apology for a national discussion

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