The riots in Britain left some Americans shaken. In the affluence of the past 40 years, and with the rise of the jumbo jet, we became a nation of travelers. We have been to England, visited a lot of those neighborhoods. They were peaceful; now they’re in flames. But something else raised our unease as we followed the story on TV and on the Net. I think there was a ping on the national radar. We saw something over there that in smaller ways we’re starting to see over here.
The British press, left, right and center, was largely united in a refusal to make political excuses for the violence. Almost all agreed on the cause and nature of what happened. The cause was not injustice; this was not a revolt of the downtrodden masses, breaking into stores looking for food. The causes were greed, selfishness, a respect and even lust for violence, and a lack of moral grounding. Conscienceless predators preyed upon the weak. The weak were anyone who happened to be passing by, and those, many of them immigrants, who tried to defend their shops and neighborhoods. The iconic scene was the 20-year-old college student in East London who was beaten for his bicycle and fell bloody to the ground. His tormentors, with a sadistic imitation of gentleness, helped him up. Then they rifled through his backpack to get his phone and wallet. It was cruelty out of Dickens. It was Bill Sikes with a million YouTube hits.
The denunciations were swift and fierce. Max Hastings, in the conservative-populist Daily Mail: “The depressing truth is that at the bottom of our society is a layer of young people with no skills, education, values or aspirations. . . . Nobody has ever dared suggest to them that they need feel any allegiance to anything, least of all Britain or their community. . . . Not only do they know nothing of Britain’s past, they care nothing for its present.”
In the left-tilting Guardian, youth worker Shaun Bailey called the rioters opportunists. “Young people have been looting the shops they like: JD Sports and mobile phone shops have been hit, yet Waterstone’s [a bookstore] has been left alone. These young people like trainers [sneakers] and iPhones; they are less interested in books. This is criminality in a raw form, not politics.”
In the right-leaning Telegraph, Allison Pearson asked: “Where are the parents?” She told of a friend who’d called a mother to tell her her son was out and acting up. The mother yelled at her for calling at 2:15 a.m. “The adults are afraid and the children, emboldened by adult timidity, are fearless.”
More stinging and resigned was the brief essay by Theodore Dalrymple in the intellectually bracing City Journal. The subject—the decline of Western society—has been his for 20 years. He has written what he saw as a doctor working in British prisons. “The ferocious criminality exhibited by an uncomfortably large section of the English population” in the riots did not surprise him. “To have spotted it required no great perspicacity on my part; rather, it took a peculiar cowardly blindness, one regularly displayed by the British intelligentsia and political class, not to see it and not to realize its significance.”
At fault in the riots were the distorting effects of the welfare state and a degenerate British popular culture: “A population thinks (because it has often been told so by intellectuals and the political class) that it is entitled to a high standard of consumption, irrespective of its personal efforts; and therefore it regards the fact that it does not receive that high standard, by comparison with the rest of society, as a sign of injustice.” Much of what they have is provided by others, but they are not grateful: dependency doesn’t encourage gratitude but resentment.
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What does this have to do with America? What we’re seeing on the streets in Britain right now is something we may be starting to see here. It hasn’t come together in a conflagration, but it is out there, and I think it’s growing. And as in Britain, it doesn’t have anything to do with political grievances per se.
Philadelphia right now is under curfew because of “flash mobs.” Young people send out the word on social media, and suddenly dozens or hundreds of them hit a targeted store, steal everything on the shelves, and run, knowing no one will stop them or catch them. It’s happened in other cities, too. Sometimes the mobs beat people up on the street and take their money. There are the beat-downs in McDonald’s, where the young lose all control and the old fear to intervene. There were the fights and attacks last weekend at the Wisconsin State Fair. You’ve seen the YouTubes of fights on the subways. You often see links to these stories on Drudge: He headlines them “Les Miserables.”
Some of these young people come from brokenness, shallowness and terror, and are bringing those things into the world with them. Here are some statistics of what someone last week called a new lost generation. In 2009, the last year for which census data are available, there were 74 million children under 18. Of that number, 20 million live in single-parent families, often with only an overwhelmed mother or a beleaguered grandmother. Over 700,000 children under 18 have been the subject of reports of abuse. More than a quarter million are foster children.
These numbers suggest the making—or the presence—of a crisis.
Some of these youngsters become miracle children. In spite of the hand they were dealt, they learn to be constructive, successful, givers to life. But many, we know, do not. Some will wind up on YouTube.
The normal, old response to an emerging problem such as this has been: The government has to do something. We must start a program, create an agency to address juvenile delinquency. But governments are tapped out, cutting back, trying to avoid bankruptcy. Which means we can’t even take refuge in the illusion that government can solve the problem. The churches of America have always helped the young, stepping in where they can. That will continue. But they too are hard-pressed these days.
Where does that leave us? In a hard place, knowing in our guts that a lot of troubled kids are coming up, and not knowing what to do about it. The problem, at bottom, is love, something we never talk about in public policy discussions because it’s too soft and can’t be quantified or legislated. But little children without love and guidance are afraid. They’re terrified—they have nothing solid in the world, which is a pretty scary place. So they never feel safe. As they grow, their fear becomes rage. Further on, the rage can be expressed in violence. This is especially true of boys, but it’s increasingly true of girls.
What’s needed can’t be provided by government. When the riot begins or the flash mob arrives, the best the government can do is control the streets, enforce the law, maintain the peace.
After that, what? Britain is about to face that question. We’ll likely have to face it, too.