Knife crime panic nears crisis point
As British society retreats behind an anti-stab vest, the risk of being paralysed by fear grows far faster than the risk of being stabbed.
Whatever the truth in the row about the level of knife crime in Britain today, there can be no doubt that this summer’s panic about knives is going off the scale. Newspapers talk gravely about a ‘deadly epidemic of youth violence’ and a ‘national crisis’. The Sun reports that knife murders by London gangs ‘are now a daily occurrence’.
And this isn’t simply tabloid talk. The Metropolitan Police have announced that youth knife murders are now a bigger challenge than terrorism in the capital – which is saying something, given that we were previously told that Islamic terrorism posed the biggest threat since Stalin and Hitler. Politicians make platitudinous statements to show that they really are very much against the murder of teenagers, and compete to make the toughest threats of retribution. The New Labour government says anybody caught with a knife should be prosecuted; the Conservative opposition says they should all be jailed; others say using a knife ‘should mean life’ – well it rhymes, so it must make sense, mustn’t it?
It might appear that public life in London, where the recent knife killings have been concentrated, is being reorganised around the spectre of knife crime. The authorities are introducing high-profile knife-specific security measures, from ‘knife arch’ detectors at train and bus stations to a new stop-and search regime, in a bid to be seen to be countering what London mayor Boris Johnson describes as the ‘culture of stabbing’. In response to the rising fears, public officials are reportedly asking to be equipped with stab vests before facing the public. In this, they are of course taking their lead from government ministers. When cabinet minister Harriet Harman was famously photographed wearing a stab vest while walking the streets of Peckham, south London with police commanders, she said it was only the same as wearing the right protective clothing in a meat factory.
Of course, knife crime and killings are not an invention of the media, or a political stunt. And public concern about them is palpable, especially among parents and young people. But as the panic rises to new levels, it is all the more important to keep a sense of perspective about the problems and the proposed solutions.
Whether you choose to believe their claims about falling knife crime or not, the police are still right to say that such crimes remain ‘relatively rare’. And youth murders remain extremely rare. Contrary to those newspaper claims, even in London gang knife murders are far from ‘a daily occurrence’. The total number of all types of murder in the capital last year was 160 – down for the fifth year in succession. Murders of teenagers were up, from 17 in 2006 to 26 in 2007, and the total of 19 teenagers killed in London so far this year suggests a further annual rise is likely. We all know, without the need for sermons, that 19 is too many deaths. But it does not amount to an ‘epidemic’. By international standards, the UK has one of the lowest youth homicide rates on earth – 0.9 per 100,000 people aged 10 to 29, according to the authoritative World Report on Violence and Health.
When the police try to claim that there has been no significant increase in knife crime, critics and fear-mongers such as Cherie Blair often talk about the hidden wave of knife injuries that show up in our hospitals but not in the official crime figures. Last week the Press Association reported hospital statistics which it claimed showed ‘a massive rise in child stab victims’, with the figures having ‘almost doubled’. BBC News correspondent Mark Easton took a closer look at those figures, published by the Department of Health. Easton notes that the national hospital figures do suggest an overall increase – ‘a total of 5,700 admissions for “assault by sharp object” in 2007 compared with just under 4,000 a decade earlier.’ However, when it came to under-16s, the focus of recent concerns, he found a more complex picture:
‘Between the years 2002-3 and 2006-7, the number of these children admitted to hospital with knife wounds in England “almost doubled” we are told. From 95 cases to 179. A rise of 88 per cent. However, over the same period, the numbers of under-16s admitted to hospital with gunshot wounds has gone down from 253 to 181. A fall of 28 per cent… If no distinction is made between knife and gun injuries, the headline might read “teen violence stable”’.
It might also add ‘…and serious teen violence rare’.
It is also important to remember that there is little that is new about young people getting into trouble and society getting in a panic about it. There is a strong tendency towards selective amnesia today that means we tend to imagine many social problems began sometime around 1997. In fact, similar-sounding concerns about violent and anti-social youth threatening civilised society go back at least to the anti-hooligan panics of the Victorian era – a far more violent time than our own, when murder was indeed a daily occurrence. Geoffrey Pearson’s classic study, Hooligan: a History of Respectable Fears, provides chapter and verse on widespread Victorian and Edwardian fears of what one London newspaper in 1898 described as ‘the young street ruffian or prowler, with his heavy belt, treacherous knife and dangerous pistol’. More recently, every decade since the 1950s has brought forth its own panic about teenage violence.
If something has changed to make young people and knives appear a bigger problem today, it is largely to do with adult society – how we relate to our children and each other. There is a lot of media and political focus on the negligent parents who allegedly allow their offspring to run wild, so that in the words of one chief constable, ‘gang life is replacing family life’. Rather less attention is paid to the far greater numbers of parents who treat their teenage children as helpless babies, and warn them not to stand up for themselves. Mayor Johnson has now announced that he would tell his children to pass by any trouble. Janice Turner of The Times (London), herself the mother of teenage sons, explains some consequences of this trend among paranoid parents:
‘We simply cannot endure any risk to our children. So we tell them – as the police advise – to surrender everything they have to anyone who asks for it. Take my mobile phone, my cash, my Oyster card, just don’t kill me. A West London friend was horrified when her son repelled a bigger boy who demanded his phone on the bus with an old-fashioned “piss off”. Fighting back is seen as madness… A message of Gandhi-like passivity is preached, so, surely, the villains realise that hordes of docile potential victims can be trapped like human cash machines.’
The combination of some immature young people with knives, trying to act and appear like big men but without a proper sense of the boundaries that a grown-up society should inculcate, and other infantilised young people denied the chance to learn about independence and looking after themselves, is unlikely to lead to a happy outcome.
The other thing that has changed perceptions of knife crime is the way that adults relate to one another. As I have argued here before, whether or not our streets are less safe than before, they are certainly more insecure (see Why knife crime cuts us to the quick). Social insecurity reflects the absence of trust and adult solidarity among many people today. It is that insecurity, understandably focused on children, which has made the problem of knife crime seem so overwhelming today. And as that adult insecurity spreads to younger people, prompting more to seek a bogus ‘safety’ in weapons, it raises the risk of the knife panic becoming self-fulfilling.
These are the cultural problems that need to be tackled. There is no law and order solution to knife crime and the fear it generates, as illustrated by the way that public concern has increased alongside every useless new law and order measure introduced. Shall we station a policeman at every kitchen cutlery drawer?
The first thing we need to recognise, however difficult it might seem, is that panic and fear about young people and knives is far more pervasive and powerful than the risk of knife crime itself. For instance, Mark Easton’s examination of those hospital figures showed how disproportionately knife wounds in young people are concentrated in London, among boys in gangs. But the panic does not stop at London’s borders. In the south-east, where I grew up as an anti-social teen in the 1970s, many people today appear obsessed with the problem – despite the fact, as Easton points out, that hospitals in the large and populous region of the south east of England treated not a single child for a stab wound last year.
One thing we should surely have learned by now is that panic and fear can be the most dangerous epidemic of all. Now that is what I would call a ‘national crisis’.
Mick hume is editor-at-large of spiked.