Blaming knives for stabbings

This year, sixteen teenagers have been murdered in London, on top of however many dozen victims there were in 2006. Not surprisingly, this has caused a panic over the carrying of knives in public, with some voices raised telling us that the penalty should be a fixed five-year jail term for anyone caught carrying a knife in public. While this particular demand is a product of social panic and unlikely to be implemented, I find it disappointing that the reaction to the recent spate of stabbings has focussed on the carrying of knives, rather than the culture which lies behind the murders.

No motive has yet been given for the stabbing to death of a young girl in a block of flats in Lambeth, in central south London, but in one case currently being considered, it appears that a 14-year-old boy was stabbed to death because his group of friends pulled faces at the group which included his murderer. That teenagers are killing each other over such petty things as silly faces or walking out of one’s own district into another, which happens to be the “territory” of different thugs to those prevailing in one’s own neighbourhood, is the cause of the panic, of course.

The problem is that young people from the same background have been carrying knives for years. I remember hearing a discussion at my sixth form college, after a boy in one of my classes had been expelled for fighting, in which a teacher said that some students did not feel dressed unless they had a knife on them, and that must have been 1993 or 1994, in south London (and this college, although it took in many students from the more deprived parts of Croydon, was one of the more reputable in the borough and located in the wealthy far south). Back then, people were not stabbing each other just for looking at them the wrong way although, at my school, boys were beaten up in public for similar petty “provocations” with impunity. I cannot help but suspect that, if young people think that using violence in such circumstances is something they can get away with, some will think the same about using lethal weapons on those who “disrespect” them.

The police reaction has been to set up metal-detecting arches at supposedly strategic points, to catch people with knives. The word went out that the young people would just have to accept this intrusion because it was for their own good. I am sure this reassured them no end - that they would have to choose between going without their usual protection and risking a prison term. Or perhaps they would just have to miss college, or their work. No doubt those who carry knives or guns in furtherance of actual criminal activity were tipped off as to where the checkpoints were. Obviously those willing to risk a life jail term for stabbing someone for nothing are terrified at the prospect of a couple of years behind bars for carrying a knife, and will not even think about using their weapons on the police officers who try to arrest them or seize their weapons. Of course it will deal with the problem of people being stabbed or otherwise attacked for going into another neighbourhood, because you just have to get the bus if you want to hang around your own block, don’t you?

Another reason why I am uneasy about a crackdown on knives, let alone an increase in the minimum sentence, is the effect it could have on the attitude of the youths concerned, and those around them. If there are a lot of youths in jail or young offenders’ institutions, it would cause overcrowding and thus increased tension in such institutions (and the victims would be the weaker inmates, perhaps among them those who had carried knives because they were not tough enough to actually fight the local thugs), and no doubt many of those caught would have been stopped on “profile” grounds. One does not need to imagine the effect this would have on relations between young people, particularly young black people, and the police.

Carrying knives is not illegal everywhere; a number of Polish men have been arrested since the period of Polish EU accession for carrying knives, clearly because it is legal back home and they cannot have imagined that it was illegal. One wonders if Poland has the same problem with senseless stabbings of young people that has arisen here recently. The unarmed society in which the carrying of weapons by private citizens is banned is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it may work well for the wealthy, the strong and those living in peaceful areas, but it might not work so well for the vulnerable and poor, in whose neighbourhoods crime tends to flourish. London has become notorious as a “walk on by” society, in which people will not intervene when crimes are committed against people in front of them; if even some ordinary people are armed, criminals will think twice about such behaviour as they do not know who around them is armed.

Rather than throw more young people in jail, we need to accept that young people will carry knives, that they always have done and that they have not always stabbed people for petty reasons (and, by the way, not all of the recent spate of killings are about dirty looks or other petty provocations). Clearly, something has changed in the culture and it is more than just people carrying knives, yet one would imagine from the discussion in the media that if you just took a whole load of kitchen knives off the streets, everything will be all right. If the culture is not tackled, even if the street killings stop or decrease (and not all the killings have been in the streets), the general violence will not die down much.

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