The riots in London and elsewhere in England have confirmed what I long knew and have long preached to my disbelieving but totally unobservant countrymen: that young British people are among the most unpleasant and potentially violent young people in the world. It took determination on the part of my countrymen not to notice it.
Needless to say, any generalization on such a scale needs to be tempered by qualification. Of course it is true that not all young Britons are unattractive in appearance and conduct, only a far higher proportion of them than of the young of any other nation. It requires but an overnight stay on a Friday or Saturday in any British city to prove it. Even Russians are appalled by what they witness.
The rioting is only the extreme end of the spectrum of bad behavior by British youth and young adults. The characteristics that are common to all classes are arrogance, a sense of entitlement and an unwillingness to moderate their behavior for the convenience of others. The main difference between the classes is that the rich can pay for what they feel entitled to, while the poor have to wheedle, cajole, swindle and steal it. But the inflamed sense of entitlement is the same.
These riots certainly did not emerge from a cultural vacuum. Many visitors to Britain, including Americans, are surprised and disturbed by how quickly many people in Britain appear to get murderously angry over trifles and direct real and frightening hatred at a person who has offended them in some very slight way. Tempers flare over nothing.
In England it is difficult now, quite literally, to distinguish the sound of people enjoying themselves from that of someone being murdered. Recently in Manchester (where there has also been rioting), I woke at 1 on a Wednesday morning in my hotel to hear drunken screaming and shouting down below on one of the city’s main streets, the sound of which continued until 4:30. Lo and behold, when I left the hotel at 8 in the morning, I discovered that a man had been savagely beaten nearly to death at about 2 a.m. and was still in a coma - but the drunken reveling had continued nonetheless, uninterrupted by the police.
So the sheer viciousness and destructiveness of the riots certainly do not surprise me. No one who has seen an English football crowd, and the brutal faces it contains, could be under any illusion as to its potential for violence. At the last match I attended, the police kept the supporters of the two teams apart by almost military maneuvers, and after the match thousands of them frogmarched one set of supporters into their awaiting buses. If they had not done so there is no doubt that widespread fighting, looting and destruction would have occurred. And football tickets are now so expensive that it is no longer the game of the poor. Thus poverty does not explain the quick resort to violence, or the obvious taste for vandalism, of the modern British.
This is now the British way of life. We are afraid of our own children; many carry knives. The number of knifing injuries in London rose from 941 in the three months between November 2010 and January 2011 to 1,070 in the three months between February and April 2011; that is to say, by nearly 14%. And knifings with victims ages 13 to 24 rose 30% over this equivalent period between 2008-09 and 2010-11.
Most of the fatalities were among people of African and West Indian origin; Negus McClean, age 15, was chased on a bicycle by seven youths before being stabbed to death by them. Apparently, he was defending his brother from a gang. Oddly enough, the outrage of the local community was contained after this event and no riots ensued. Apparently, not all violent deaths are of equal concern to the inhabitants of our slums.
Long training and experience have taught young denizens of our poorer areas that they have nothing to fear from the law. Not only do the police solve a mere 5% of crimes or thereabouts, but nothing much happens to those who are convicted. A former lord chief justice of England, Lord Baron Woolf, thought that house burglary was so trivial a crime that those who committed it should not be imprisoned. Shoplifting has been virtually decriminalized. The slum dwellers of London are not well-educated - they reject the very concept of education - but are perfectly capable of drawing their conclusions. The only thing that will stop the rioters is boredom or exhaustion.
This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News