Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London's Burning

I've been just as appalled as anyone by what has happened in London, and now seems to be spreading across the UK. What may have started up after the flaring of a peaceful protest against the police has now turned into something in no way related to the initial spark.

People are having their homes burnt to the ground, the shops which are their livelihood ripped apart, and their communities destroyed. It's sickening.

It withstood two World Wars, but House of Reeve's was reduced to a smoldering wreck within minutes.

I'm not from the areas affected so really can't comment on what has caused these outbreaks of violence and criminality, but there are a few things to add to the current debate.

First of all, seeking answers as to why these riots took place is not the same as condoning the violence. If we're to stop riots happening in the future we need to understand why and how they happen, not just put our fingers in our ears and blame the 'bad people'. There has to be some reason why people have come out and destroyed their own communities. If your answer is that they're all thugs, then you have to ask why we have so many thugs in our country?

I was impressed by Dr. Clifford Stott earlier on BBC, an expert in crowd psychology, and one of the most qualified to speak about these riots. He also echoed the frustration in that when trying to analytically look at these riots he was accused of being an apologist. He is no such thing, he simply wants to understand rioting so that we can be better prepared to prevent future outbreaks.

It may seem an easy answer but you cannot attribute these kind of widespread riots simply to 'copycat' attacks, or to an outbreak of mob irrationality, or even as simply criminally predisposed individuals seizing the opportunity to break the law. As Stott says, no research into riots over the last 30 years has supported these views, they are far too simplistic.

People's lives were put in danger last night, people's livelihood's up in flames. Many were left without a home. The kind of damage people do everything in their power to stop outsiders doing to their cities was inflicted upon London by it's own residents. But to simply dehumanise the rioters as is the natural reaction is to miss the point, this will simply happen again if we don't learn lessons.

There are a whole multitude of theories as to what acted as the tinder which was caught by the spark of Mark Duggan's peaceful protest. I think trying to outline them now would be premature. But one of the lessons which does seem to be evident is that police need much closer integration with the communities they serve.

The violence was not a legitimate expression of anger against the police, but it remains high on the list of grievances of many in the communities that have been part of the rioting. If respect for the police breaks down, then the dangers are all too evident. No matter what powers or numbers the police are given, without the respect of the communities they serve they will be powerless to stop this kind of activity.

But before this looks like a criticism of the police, I should say that under great strain last night there were a lot of brave policemen and women on the ground who did everything they could to stem the violence, and they deserve credit for that. Hopefully, with nearly three times as many on the ground tonight, they should be able to regain control of the streets.

One final thing. There have been calls last night and today for either an increase in police powers (perhaps bringing in watercannons) or for the involvement of the army. Whilst I can understand why some people might call for this, I don't think either is a solution to the troubles.

Soldiers are not trained in police tactics, they are trained as soldiers. The best trained people to deal with a situation like this are the police, and their failure last night was not down to them being the police but down to the low numbers they had to deal with such widespread rioting. Bringing in the army against your own citizens should only ever be an absolute last resort, and I don't believe we are there yet. The army is no silver bullet, as Operation Demetrius proved in the 1970's.

The only situations I would like to see the army being used in would be as support for the police operation, such as in assisting fire engines to reach blazes or to provide communications support. Those are legitimate roles for which the army would be well prepared.

As for increasing police powers, I believe they already have the necessary powers to control this violence, providing they have the manpower to implement them. Clearly, an increase by 10,000 in police numbers on the ground is hugely significant and should hopefully be enough to quell the violence without any new emergency powers.

To end on a positive note, whilst last night may have seen the worst of London, today has surely seen the best. Thousands of people have turned out on the streets to clean up the area, and have cheered on the police as they've done so.

And if you're going to listen to only one person from last night's riots, listen to this brave woman, imploring people to stop destroying their own communities. We need more people like her.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Death Penalty Debate

Some people seem to think that even engaging in the debate around the death penalty restarted by the frankly reprehensible Paul Staines is playing into his hands, but I think it's worth reopening from time to time to remind ourselves just why it is so wrong and why its reintroduction has so consistently been voted down.

I'm going to argue this from a slightly different point of view to a lot of others. A lot of people have argued that the death penalty should not be reinstated for practical reasons, because it doesn't reduce crime and because the danger of a wrongful conviction is made to have so much more dire consequences.These are all valid points, and reason enough to not have the death penalty, but I think there's a much more fundamental reason why we shouldn't have capital punishment in our country, it is morally reprehensible.

The traditional argument goes that for some of the most serious crimes, usually including pre-meditated murder, the criminal has taken away the human rights of another and so does not deserve to keep their own right to life. It seems to me that much of the argument in favour of the death penalty is about exacting revenge, rather than justice, and so to me has no place in a civilised society.

The simplest argument against the death penalty for me is that the arguments in its favour make no logical sense. They start with the premise that killing is morally wrong, that it should be punished, and that it should be punished by killing the criminal. The flaw in that argument should be glaringly obvious. Victor Hugo put it well when he said, "What says the law? You will not kill. How does it say it? By killing!"

If you start with the premise that murder can never be justified, then you cannot end with the idea that murder is a suitable punishment.

As for the argument that murderers have forgone their human rights, I disagree entirely. Either human rights are non-negotiable or they mean nothing at all. I might despise what a particular criminal has done, it might make me sick to the pit of my stomach, but I would like to believe that I can be the better person by not stooping to the level of taking another human life.

I'm not religious, and so don't think life is a gift from some higher power, but I do believe it's pretty incredible. The very fact you or I are alive right now and able to do all the things human beings do is spectacular. I don't think the taking of life can ever be seen as a good thing, regardless of my feelings towards another person.

Surely, we are better as a nation than a primitive tit for tat style of justice, than succumbing to the temptation of 'an eye for an eye'. How are we to claim we value life when we so willingly take it from others. And who amongst us would willingly do the job of the executioner?

Who is more humane, the man who demands the death of another, or this man, who is campaigning for the life of Mark Stroman, who shot him in the face.

As he said, "these crimes were hate crimes, and hate crimes come from ignorance. His execution will not eliminate hate crimes from this world, but we'll simply lose a human life."

That's the kind of society I want to live in, one which tries to better itself, rather than equaling the actions of its lowest members. One which sees the right to life as inalienable, not something to be disposed of when convenient. One which sees the taking of a life as reprehensible, not something to be carried out at the will of the state.

"Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement." - JRR Tolkien