This question presented itself on a busy tube when I read the headline of the London Evening Standard ‘Teenage Boy Stabbed to Death’ (or along those lines). The media often reframe the question by asking what causes these crimes. ‘What causes anyone to kill another human being?’ But this is not answered in the way it should; used as a way to remain ignorant to the real issues. One often hears meaningless explanations such as a low economic background, poor upbringing, and other such phrases that serve to devolve responsibility from the individual.
To suggest the 15-year-old Alan Cartwright, the victim in the Standard story, was someone how a symptom of an economic equation is cowardice in its highest form. Certainly, no such explanation has emerged yet and I hope it does not. But, too often they do and some, voiced by politicians, are found in an article published by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, found here.
If one were to answer my initial question, we would be closer to understanding the true causes of many civic crimes. What restrains us is as powerful (and in many cases more so) as what motivates us especially in matters of personal morality. Feelings of obligation for instance are a powerful restraint that often leads us to pursue one thing over another. Restraint on the individual is something society should be based on. What you can do should be determined by what you cannot do. In other words, society should be based on negative freedom. Thus, a tube full of commuters should not break out in violence due to the restraints placed upon.
But what if these restraints are no longer strong? What if a society loses all sense of common restraint? This was the frightening spectacle that took life in my mind as I looked around. It made me realise that we are never too far (and probably too close) from breaking ties of mutual obligation and duty. It is becoming more and more difficult to discern where sources of obligation come from in our society. This issue also takes form in defining our identity. What is Britishness? A question never answered however much it’s debated.
Orwell’s line that there are perhaps four or five Britain’s is probably the best answer. He mentions moderate Christianity, a sense of togetherness in the face of attack, and, I’m sure, his descriptions of landscape as well as personal traits of ‘the average Brit’ as a beer and tea drinker also played strongly in his idea of Britishness. We need to see the link between identity and where our obligations lie. If an identity is a good one then our obligation to this will also be one that ensures we are civilised. But the case is that we have no idea what are identity is anymore. It’s been destroyed.
The attack that Orwell envisaged was one that reflected Nazism, but the attack we are witnessing today is from within. As a disingenuous political class works for its own benefit with an unprecedented disregard for its citizens society has been betrayed. An underclass of unemployed, a middle class fighting for its existence and a wealthy elite that no longer shares a common understanding with the rest of society. This is but a small description of what we face.
I am not suggesting that a lack of identity has lead to murders and crime. These issues are prevalent throughout history. However, it raises the prospect of a time that may all too easily come where reasonable Britons rebel in protest at the betrayal inflicted upon them. History might yet come to see this period as one where society realises this injustice. Where the obligations that restrain us are so weak that only a small trigger will cause those who suffer in this process to ignite. Unless a solution is found soon I fear violent civil unrest is almost inevitable.