[LONDON] Last night there were more buildings aflame in the city than at any time since World War II. Some 6,000 police were unable to cope as across the capital -- and in other cities in the UK -- gangs of hooded youths took to the streets in copycat riots, torching and looting in the third night of what has been the most widespread disorder in Britain's living memory.
Where I live in Westminster, close to Parliament, is quite far from the hotspots; yet you can feel the tension. 'Police warn of gangs beginning to congregate around South Westminster', I read a few hours ago, and felt a little of the gnawing anticipation which the prospect of violence always brings. My local Sainsbury's supermarket has shuttered up, 'due to the incidents reported across London'.
But for residents of Croydon, Clapham, Ealing, Camden, Hackney -- the list is very long -- they have lived the violence at close hand. Businesses have been set alight, shops looted, people burned out of their flats. More than 450 have been arrested. As further reports come in today of general disorder, there is a growing sense of alarm at the realisation that law and order has broken down. The terrifying, sickening scenes we have seen on television give us a sense of being invaded, as if we are losing our city.
The prime minister, David Cameron, has flown back from Italy to 'take control': resisting intemperate calls for the army to be called in and water cannon to be used -- it never has been on the British mainland -- he has massively increased the police presence on London's streets tonight to an astonishing 16,000 (you can already see them everywhere in my part of town). Parliament is being recalled for a day on Thursday.
The question, of course, is why it is happening. The flashpoint was last Thursday night in Tottenham in north-west London, when police shot dead a young man in still mysterious circumstances. The family demanded an explanation; the police appeared not to have one. Anger erupted. Gangs gathered. Long-simmering tensions between black people and police exploded.
Yet if the shooting of Mark Duggan was the pretext, it doesn't remotely explain the orgy of violence and looting these past days. Nor do poverty and social injustice, on their own, account for it. The gatherings have been organized by technology -- especially the Blackberry Messenger (BBM), the smartphone of choice. Hardened criminals have been at the heart of this opportunistic violence; they have taken advantage of the moment to assert their power.
Yet to call this "sheer criminality" -- the right-wing narrative -- is to ignore some obvious social facts. There are a million more 15-24 year olds in Britain today than a decade ago, while the number of out-of-work young people is at the highest level since records began in 1992. Some 600,000 people under 25 in Britain have never done a day’s work in their lives. We knew this was a time-bomb. Maybe this is its first explosion.
We have a large, and growing, urban young underclass -- alienated, angry, hating of themselves and of others. And in London, their distance from the mechanisms of exchange is even more marked; levels of inequality are higher in the capital than anywhere else in the country, and are greater than at any time since the 1960s. London has a high and growing proportion of families entirely dependent on state benefits, where rates of divorce and family dysfunction are at record levels. These households are largely to be found in the inner city north and eastern areas -- the areas hardest hit by the riots.
This is the background. But why now? Is it related to the massive cut in government expenditure, which is leading --in London especially -- to the closure of youth clubs and other charities? It is hard to know. Mob violence has many causes, and many of them interlock; but most decisive of all is the primeval instinct for chaos and violence -- the adrenalin-pumped desire for disorder -- which overtakes alienated individuals melded into rapacious gangs.
As the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, said today: "The scenes of the last few nights in parts of London and elsewhere are shocking. The criminal violence and theft that have been witnessed are to be condemned. They are a callous disregard for the common good of our society and show how easily basic principles of respect and honesty are cast aside."
One thing is for certain: there may be political causes of this unrest, but the disorder has no political objective. It is primitive, and materialistic. As one wag tweeted just now, 'the youth of the Middle East rise up for political freedoms. The youth of London rise up for an HD-ready 43" Plasma TV".
But it is too early for the analyses. Right now, the question is whether London tonight continues to burn, or begins to calm.