Once you’ve endured the news reports, recoiled from the savagery sometimes not far from your front door and felt the shudder, distant but real, of parental empathy, another, more banal, sensation follows – a demoralising sense of déjà vu. An upsurge in the murder rate occurs and as night follows day comes the deluge of “get tough” talk and trigger-finger pointing at the usual targets: social media; police numbers; racism; rap culture; the drug trade; the government; the Mayor; the Russians; “the cuts”; fatherless sons. Into the void of incomprehension, where an urge to take a life in revenge for being called something impolite on Snapchat is simply and unsurprisingly inexplicable, surges a slew of off-the-peg pieties, not much changed from the last time we passed this way and every bit as inadequate.
Except that that is too cynical. All of the above can form a piece of an explanation for what is going on. But a big point to hold on to is that it’s always going on, not only when there is a jump in the number of people killed and a media furore in its wake, in turn setting off panic and pointing-scoring on the part of the authorities. The fears of voters feed the fears of politicians, who reach for instant appeasement strategies – a new crime strategy here, a stop-and-search crackdown, there – especially at election times.
They are dodging ballot box bullets. Meanwhile, in homes across the capital, children, young adults and their families live in states of permanent worry that they or their loved one will be next to get in the way of a real bullet or be stabbed to death on the street. Most are highly unlikely to be victims. Some, depending largely on their ethnicity, their neighbourhood and their social circumstances, know only too well that their chances are too high for peace of mind, and that includes people who have no involvement whatsoever with any kind of criminality. Over the years, I’ve had conversations with absolutely straight and honest mothers of black boys who have been terrified of letting their sons out of the front door. Imagine how it must be to live that way.
Precedent suggests that the recent increased rate of killings in London, especially of teenagers and other young people, will pass and that the murder rate will revert to its more usual lower level. With that, media interest too will pass and with it the more frantic public responses of our elected representatives. There might be some sort of blessing in that, given the shallowness and opportunism of too much of it. But the terrible danger is that a return to normal levels of fatal violence makes the normalisation of the intolerable the norm, and that cannot be acceptable.
On 3 May, Londoners – some of them anyway – will vote for their borough councillors. The elections are also a national event, with national issues and national politicians involved, and they are about the record and policies of the London Mayor too. The recent brutal losses of life in London are already part of the campaigning at each of those levels. Not everything that has been said so far is rubbish, but neither has there been much evidence yet of those whose voices are most likely to be heard offering more than the usual soundbite solutions.
Dare we hope that during the next three-and-a-half weeks politicians will have the courage to acknowledge some uncomfortable realities? For example, that there is no straightforward connection between the resources available to the Metropolitan Police and the propensity for young Londoners to take each others’ lives; or that some neighbourhoods should have more of the resources the Met does have at its disposal than others, because they have bigger problems; or that the supply of intelligence about gang-driven violence might depend on the degree of confidence people have in the Met and that there just isn’t enough of it; or that the methods currently used to detect violent intentions, to divert those with such intentions to other paths and, most of all, to protect those most likely to be its victims simply are not as good as they should be. Who will be brave enough to talk about those things? Who will conquer their fear of talking about crime honestly?