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Tuesday, August 09, 2011 

Fear and media overreaction has to be followed by reflection.

It's difficult to reach a conclusion other than it's going to be a bad day when it opens with Eamonn Holmes on Sky News essentially asking Kit Malthouse why the army aren't on the streets shooting people. When it ends with Kelvin MacKenzie on Newsnight, taking part in quite possibly the least enlightening debate in history also suggesting squaddies should be out fragging the underclass, even if only with rubber bullets, you know that one low has inexorably led to another.

Overreaction to what were unprecedented scenes last night across London was always likely. For the news networks rather than the usual suspects our febrile press to be the main culprits is still something to be surprised by. It's continuing even now, with what are likely to be events completely unconnected to the rioting reported as if they are further evidence of a situation still out of control. This hysterical atmosphere, not helped admittedly by the rise of social networks where rumour and invention are immediately reported and spread as fact, is undoubtedly scaring people who have absolutely no reason whatsoever to be frightened. I'm well outside London and away from the main flashpoints in the other major cities, and yet through word of mouth it was today spreading around that a major local supermarket had been set on fire, almost needless to say when it had not been. Likewise, every major town around the area except for ours was apparently facing down similar outbreaks of lawlessness, again it turned out completely erroneously.

This in turn has resulted in London essentially shutting down tonight and many businesses boarding their windows up, when it looks as if such desperate measures, although precautionary, were completely unnecessary. The violence in Manchester does look to have been serious, although even there it appears to have been localised to the main city centre, rather than in multiple areas. While it is indeed better to be safe than sorry, it always seemed likely that what happened last night was an aberration, a once in a generation outbreak of lawlessness perpetuated by the disaffected, those with a grievance and those simply out to take advantage. Like Sunny I might yet eat these words, but with the combination of the massive police presence, parents refusing to let their children out and the general sense of anger and outrage at what happened it was doubtful there would be a repeat performance. It could just be that it's a lull, and that at the weekend it could start up again, but even then you suspect the numbers of police out will be similar.

The police, having been caught out like everyone else are coming in for criticism which is unbelievably short-sighted and lacking in both humility and candour. Any police force in any major city in any democracy would have struggled to deal with the ultra-localised groups of rioters that were out yesterday, moving quickly both on public transport and in cars. They were stretched to the absolute limit, and knew full well that if they had intervened directly in the looting when they were so often so vastly outnumbered that not only did they risk making things even worse, if that's possible, they would be risking their lives for the sake of a few plasma televisions and shop windows. It requires tens of officers, organised and trained in dealing with mobs, to be able to stop such organised thieving, not the few who were being deployed in restrictive full riot gear. As hard as it is to for the shop owners and others to see their businesses being smashed and in some cases burned while the police stood off and watched, risking exacerbating things would have not helped anyone.

Similarly, those asking why water cannon and tear gas weren't made available or used to break up the looting are confusing their use against protests which often have one specific focal point, where demonstrators are usually attacking the police or trying to get somewhere, and the fast-moving attacks on property seen last night. Even if you soaked and hit/gassed a few of those taking part, the majority would manage to slink away quickly. Moreover, it wasn't just looters who were out last night; there were large numbers of onlookers, as the police themselves said, who risked getting caught up in it. Using the threat of baton rounds could arguably have been effective, which is why they were authorised for use today if they were needed, which they thankfully haven't been. Even then the problems are obvious: the last thing we need or want is the routine use of such crowd control methods, as could easily follow as a result. As has hopefully been demonstrated, the biggest deterrent is not just a temporary major police presence, but also the opprobrium of the community at large bearing down on those who felt temporarily empowered or free from the fear of the consequences of their actions.

The one thing the Met could be criticised for is their overly cautious approach today, urging businesses to close early and recommending the cancellation of tomorrow's England friendly, which if the general calm continues may look daft later. They have at least, unlike the politicians, been urging calm. Urging calm, unlike telling people not to panic which tends to have the opposite effect, seems uniquely British. David Cameron merely gave the impression through his Downing Street statement not of resolve, but of someone thoroughly pissed off that he'd had to come back from Tuscany to deal with the proles finally realising their lives are going to get worse and keep on getting worse. All of the Tories seemed perturbed that despite their predictions rioting had broken out; weren't the inner cities a problem that had been solved, or which could be left to fester without what happened there spreading to their own heartlands? They certainly hadn't bargained on anything like this impeding or questioning the imposition of austerity, which has still yet to properly kick in.

This isn't to suggest that this can be traced directly back to government policy, or excused or explained in such a simple way. It's apparent that some of the rioting, especially outside London, seems to have been conducted by the local hoodlums who the police regularly find themselves dealing with, who shouldn't be given even the slightest benefit of a political explanation for their actions. Some of what we've seen has though had its roots in the hopelessness which many are beginning to feel and which the latest economic figures and market crashes have brought home to them: that we're in a hole and regardless of which of the main three political parties is in power power, all are wedded to policies which are going to hit the most vulnerable the hardest.

As Kenan Malik has stated, there doesn't have to be contradiction between the competing claims that this is sheer criminality and that it has a root cause in social exclusion and wasted lives: those taking part are responding in the only way they know how to, which also has the benefit of grabbing attention whilst giving them the feeling of striking back through the acquisition of goods. The one message that has filtered down to them is that you should take what you can. They've followed it. Now the politicians have to find a way of reassuring an outraged middle class without further attacking and antagonising those they've all but abandoned. After the clean up must come the inquest.

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