The Croydon stabbing: in the shadow of nihilism
The killing of 15-year-old Elianne Andam is an affront to civilisation.
There are some events that are so dark, so brimming with nihilism, that they force us to take a hard look at society itself. To reckon not only with the horror in question, but also with the world in which such a horror could occur. The stabbing to death of 15-year-old Elianne Andam in Croydon in south London is one such event. If this act of savagery, of almost breezy evil, does not bring self-reflection to modern Britain, nothing will.
Everything about the death of Elianne is bleak beyond imagination. It happened during rush hour on Wednesday. Elianne and friends were on their way to school. One of her friends was accosted by a 17-year-old boy, reportedly her ex-boyfriend. He had a bouquet of roses. Elianne stepped in to try to calm things down. The boy allegedly took out a thin, foot-long knife and drove it into Elianne’s neck. She died in the street, next to the blood-spattered roses.
It feels incomprehensible. How untethered from morality must a young man be, how unbound by social norms, to slay a girl in the street for the ‘offence’ of suggesting he back off. Elianne was bright and clearly a good friend. She wanted to be a lawyer. And yet on a Wednesday morning, in front of her fellow citizens, her life was ended with a ‘zombie knife’ allegedly wielded by a boy who has not yet reached the age of majority. Not only the people of Croydon but the nation itself feels shell-shocked by this senseless destruction of young, promise-filled life.
What people feel, I think, is that there is a kind of low-level mob rule in this country now. That the decay of the old forms of authority – policing, the justice system, school discipline, even the rule of parents – has emboldened the exercise of newer forms of authority. The authority of the knife, of brute strength, of swagger. The desertion of our streets by nervous police forces, and the desertion of the realm of morality by elites who cannot even say what Britain’s values are, appears to have paved the way for a soft mobocracy that is armed, mobile, unforgiving and more than willing to replace our withered values with its own merciless ones.
The media discussion of the horror in Croydon has exposed the intellectual vacuity of our times. Unwilling, unable perhaps, to confront the possibility of moral decay, to ponder how we reached a situation where young men think slitting throats is a fitting response to ‘disrespect’, commentators instead point the finger at the manosphere. It’s Andrew Tate’s fault, they say, despite no evidence whatsoever that the alleged culprit in this grim crime watched Tate’s sad, sexist videos.
Even the tying of the calamity in Croydon to misogyny feels too small, too easy. It does not detract from the seriousness of domestic violence, which sometimes turns murderous, to suggest that what we witnessed this week was different. Feminist theories on male fury are surely insufficient to explain why youths today are carrying virtual swords in the streets. And are happy to use them in response to something as trivial as a presumed slight, as if their prestige, their feelings, carry greater moral weight than life itself. Besides, it is usually boys, not girls, who fall to the blades of the low-level urban mobocracy. We’re going to need more than Andrea Dworkin here.
Time and again, pat explanations are offered for the scourge of knife crime. It’s ‘fuelled by poverty and social deprivation’, academics say, blind to their own historical illiteracy: there have always been poor people but they did not tend to use machetes to slay their supposed foes. The youth charity Barnardo’s says there is a link between cuts to youth services and rising knife crime. The idea that the nihilism involved in a gang of youths cutting to death a 16-year-old boy in a frenzy of so-called retaliation might be remedied by a youth club with nice snooker tables is ridiculous to the point of being offensive.
We are reminded, once more, that technocracy is not up to the task of confronting moral ills. The new elites, having eschewed morality in preference for managerialism, who see the populace as a collection of broken individuals to be soothed and improved rather than as citizens of a shared universe of values, are intellectually unfit for something like the knife-crime emergency. Their instinct is to reduce every moral crisis to a health crisis, in order that they might avoid the vast and hard questions that the existence of machete-wielding gangs raises about our society. We must remember, said Sadiq Khan’s office in its Knife Crime Strategy a few years ago, that these offenders are ‘highly complex individuals’ with a ‘range of challenging disorders such as mental-health issues linked to emotional trauma’. Therapeutic pity replaces moral condemnation; treatment usurps punishment. All this, so that they might dodge passing judgement. All this, so that they’ll never have to say anything as firm as: ‘These people are wicked.’
The inability of our ethically immature elites to reckon, seriously, with knife crime speaks to how this scourge developed in the first place. It seems clear to me that the cult of the knife is a provocation born out of the demise of moral clarity, adult authority and social discipline in 21st-century Britain. It is not only nature that abhors a vacuum – society does, too. And it is in the wastelands of unpoliced streets, of weakened family life, of parents, teachers and other adult figures feeling increasingly bereft of the moral command they once enjoyed over the next generation, that the new low-level mob rule has taken hold. A society that advertises itself as post-values, which rejects school discipline as Dickensian, that thinks fatherlessness is fine, and whose cops spend more time policing tweets than streets, should not be surprised if new social menaces emerge.
We should not whip up a culture of fear around knife crime. Fear is as useless a tool for navigating moral storms as is the post-ethical complacency of our rulers. In London, there has not been a notable spike in murders. So far this year, the capital has seen 79 deaths by violence. Fifteen of the victims were teenagers. Every one of those killings is a disaster, for families and communities. But we must maintain perspective. In 2017/18, there were 159 homicides in London. In 2019/20, 144. The risk of being murdered in London remains very low.
No, the problem today is not an ‘epidemic’ of knife crime but the nature of knife crime. To my mind, it’s the question of why knives and machetes are being carried and used that feels most unsettling. Many knife offences in the capital today are not the ‘crimes of passion’ or drug-linked killings that have always been with us, but rather seem like crimes of narcissism. Crimes of ‘esteem’. Ferociously violent payback for presumed insults, for hurt feelings, essentially. This seems to have been the case in the slaying of Elianne. And it comes across in other noisy, bloody assaults on unsuspecting youths, too.
The cult of the knife starts to look like the militant wing of the cult of narcissism. Urban youths defend their ‘reputations’ from slight even more fiercely than middle-class youths protect their identities. In both cases, though, for all that they are worlds apart, a pained and fragile vanity seems to rule the day. We are witnessing a violent manifestation of the sanctification of the self. Having abandoned the great and taxing task of socialising the young into the values of the community, and having simultaneously encouraged the belief that one’s self-esteem matters over all else, Britain has no right to be shocked that anti-social behaviour has become a problem, and that violent self-regard now seems to be on the cards.
The link between social disarray and egotistical violence was brought home to me by the anti-crime initiative, Don’t Stab Your Future (DSYF). Supported by the great Idris Elba, DSYF, as its name suggests, encourages youths to put down the knives to ensure that they have a nice, prison-free future. It appeals to self-interest, not the social interest. It says the problem with using knives is that it will hurt you, the knife-user. You’ll suffer consequences, possibly penal consequences. What a grim testament to the hyper-individuation of our times that crime is discouraged not on the basis that it hurts its victims and the broader community, but on the basis that it will hamper the life chances of the criminal himself. Such a remedy – ‘think of yourself’ – is worse than useless. In fact, it risks inflaming the very post-social, post-moral self-concern that would appear to be at the root of the cult of the knife.
Too many technical solutions are being put forward for the knife emergency. Yes, some of them have an important role to play. People want their streets policed well, for example. They want tougher punishments from the courts for those who would do something so cavalierly anti-community as carry a knife around. Deterrence helps. But we need to do the harder stuff, too, and really reflect on what it was that laid the groundwork for the kind of nihilism that claimed a life as beautiful as Elianne’s.
Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy
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