Why knife crime cuts us to the quick
The deep insecurity in our society has fuelled a national panic, despite the UK having one of the world’s lowest youth homicide rates.
Why are so many young people carrying knives; why are there so many youth killings; why is our society so ‘broken’ and out of control? To judge by media and political debate, you might think that these are the Big Questions facing Britain today. But here are a couple of alternative questions: Why have we blown up knife crime, the ‘knife culture’ and anti-social youth into such a defining issue of the age? And isn’t there a risk of this panic becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy?
‘Kids killing kids. Families in fear. It’s time to say NO MORE’, declared the front page of the Sun newspaper on Tuesday, announcing that ‘The nation is in the grip of an epidemic of deadly youth violence’. These sentiments are not restricted to the tabloid press. The Sun shares its ‘Broken Britain’ slogan with Conservative Party leader David Cameron. The Metropolitan Police chief has compared the problem of youth violence in London to the threat of terrorism. New London mayor Boris Johnson has even talked about ‘the culture of stabbing’, as if it were endemic among young people in the capital. Little wonder that one TV news presenter felt able to pose the rhetorical question, ‘Is London the knife capital of the world?’
As the panic has reached a new pitch in recent days, media reports have lumped together isolated and unconnected incidents - an Asian youth beaten to death in Yorkshire, a young actor stabbed on the south-east London/Kent borders, two young Africans shot in north London - as evidence of an alleged ‘epidemic’. The particular focus on knives and youth stabbings in London has been sustained by constant coverage of the brutal killings of 16-year-old Jimmy Mizen (who died from a wound made by broken glass from a shop door) on 10 May and the 18-year-old actor Rob Knox a fortnight later. The drawn-out reports of the two deaths and their aftermaths has created the impression of an almost daily death toll in the city.
It is time to put these events in some perspective. Our aim should in no way be to belittle the crimes, or play down the tragic suffering of those involved. It is a question of treating them as just that: individual offences and tragedies, rather than symptoms of any social epidemic.
Believe it or not but it is true: as a leading Met officer said this week, ‘Statistically, knife crime remains a rare event’. Although there are always disputes over different crime statistics and surveys, there is no evidence of any boom in knife crime in the UK. And one thing we can know for certain - since murder is the crime that definitely does not go ‘under-reported’ - is that knife killings, and youth homicides, remain extremely rare.
Total murders in London were down in 2007 for the fifth year in succession, from 222 in 2003 to 160 last year. Within those figures, the numbers of teenagers killed did rise - by ‘over 50 per cent’ as some reports put it. In hard numbers, however, that was an increase from 17 deaths to 26. The rate of youth homicides in London this year - 14 teenage deaths so far - would, if it were sustained to the end of 2008, represent a far smaller rise. Reports that the number of killings nationally in which both the victim and assailant were under 18 had ‘trebled’ last year also need to be put in some perspective; that was an increase from 12 killings in 2006 to 37 in 2007.
Each and every violent death of a young person is of course a bitter tragedy, and, as we all know without being endlessly lectured, even one killing is one too many. But these relatively modest figures suggest that there must be something else behind the current panic. And a brief international comparison makes any talk of the UK as the knife or murder capital of the world look as stupid as it is irresponsible.
The most trusted global survey remains the World Health Organisation’s first World Report on Violence and Health, published in 2002. The WHO report estimated a global total of 199,000 youth homicides in 2000 - a worldwide average of 9.2 killings per 100,000 people aged 10 to 29. Within that average, however, the regional and national variations were the most striking.
Across Latin America there were 36.4 homicides per 100,000 young people; Colombia topped the table with 84.4 killings per 100,000, followed by El Salvador and Brazil. Across Africa the average was 17.6 killings per 100,000 young people. In Russia it was 18 homicides per 100,000. In the USA the comparable figure was 11. And in Western Europe? France had just 0.6, Germany 0.8 and the UK only 0.9 killings for every 100,000 young people.
If anything, the trends since 2000 seem likely to have widened rather than narrowed the youth homicide gap between Western Europe and the developing world. I recently heard tell of a British expert who went to an international conference where speakers from Latin America reeled off figures of tens of thousands of youth homicides a year. When it came to his turn to address the conference, he had some trouble explaining how the comparatively tiny UK statistics for similar killings could be seen to constitute a national crisis.
Why then has knife crime become such an all-consuming image, a centrepiece of Britain’s self-image, with top-level talk of it ‘spiralling out of control’, of a ‘deadly epidemic of youth violence’ and a ‘stabbing culture’? This would appear to have more to do with the diminishing sense of solidarity among adults than any rising tide of crime among the young.
It is not so much that our streets and cities are more unsafe, but they are certainly more insecure. There is a deep sense of insecurity in communities where many feel isolated from one another, and especially from young people. In a world of strangers, it is little wonder that the fear of ‘stranger danger’ can take such a hold.
This insecurity helps to explain why incidents of violence can be interpreted as proof of a major social problem, confirming people’s worst fears about others. It is why many refuse to accept any reassurances about the real levels of crime in society, even including murder. It seems simply beyond the comprehension of many that things are not getting worse and worse, so deep are they buried within their personal bunkers of the psyche.
Against this background, cold facts cannot compete with emotions. It is the lack of solidarity in our communities, not the shortage of stats, that feeds the sense of insecurity. Thus during the recent London mayoral election campaign, when Ken Livingstone tried to tell a TV studio audience that overall murder rates had fallen in the capital, people tried to shout him down as if they believed that there could be unrecorded piles of bodies hidden about the city. (No doubt in other circumstances Ken would have been the one trying to drum up fear of rising knife crime.)
And youth violence is an issue that captures our society’s state of mind better than most. The needless death of a teenager will always be a terrible and emotive event. But the impact is far greater today when young people have become the focus of so many of our insecurities, so that adults project their hopes and fears on to them, stereotyping youth either as victims or villains.
The official response to the knife panic only makes matters worse. Politicians often pay lip service to the fact that ‘fear of crime’ is far more widespread than crime itself. Their answer, however, is to try to calm public fears by staging high-profile law-and-order ‘crackdowns’ that do little to alter anything but only confirm people’s worst fears about what is out there. New Labour’s repeated attempts to restrict access to knives – a pointless exercise unless you can put a policeman on every kitchen drawer – have been a case study in how to stoke insecurities in the name of public safety. The Conservative mayor of London’s latest stunt, supporting the installation of hi-tech scanners known as ‘knife arches’ at train stations, will stand as a physical symbol of the unsafe city.
And so to the other question I asked at the top. Could the panic about something like knife crime be self-fulfilling? If adult society is so insecure, might that not be transmitted to young people? There is really nothing new about teenagers drinking, fighting and upsetting their elders, and many middle-aged commentators today seem to suffer from amnesia about the world in which we grew up. But if knives and weapons were to be more prevalent today, couldn’t that be connected to our social insecurity? When the adult world appears scared of its own shadow, and grown-ups who act like frightened infants offer little sense of community or leadership, it should surely be little wonder that some adolescents say they carry knives for protection. Indeed, when some paranoid parents start sending their children to school in stab vests, the wonder might be that more don’t start ‘carrying’.
Knife crime is real, not an invention of the media. But the panic about knife crime is a problem of a different order. It is important that we maintain a sense of proportion, and locate the real problem where it lies. There is no ‘epidemic’ of young people determined to stab each other. But there is an insecure society where many feel so cut off from one another that they can see the lowest rate of youth homicide in the world as the biggest danger facing Britain. That is a dagger pointing at the heart of our civilisation.
Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.