August 18, 2011
You can add one more country to the long, long list of repressive regimes in the world. It's not in the Middle East or Asia; it's right across The Pond.
Great Britain? How can this be?
Consider the reaction of the British government to the riots and looting that occurred in London, Birmingham, and other major cities last week: Mass arrests of suspected looters, many of them identified by the surveillance cameras ubiquitous in urban areas; 24/7 "speedy justice" trials, dishing out jail terms even to children and even for thefts as small as a couple bottles of water or packs of chewing gum; authorizing the police to quell disturbances with rubber bullets and water-cannon (evocative of that other Birmingham, on our shores); proposing to disable social networks (an eery parallel to the actions of despots in Egypt, Syria, and Iran); and just about the worst of the worst, evicting from public housing the families of the convicted.
Consider as well the rhetorical reaction. "This is criminality, pure and simple," said Prime Minister David Cameron when he returned to England early from his idyllic vacation in Tuscany to manage the situation. Days later, asked what those people thrown out of their homes would do then, Cameron replied, "They should have thought of that before they started burgling." The answer to the same question by no less an authority than London's housing commissioner himself, a man with the charmingly English name of Eric Pickles, was: "They could get a job."
The callousness, both in word and deed, is straight out of Dickens.
It's an exaggeration for me to lump Great Britain with the likes of Bahrain or Burma. To the credit of the police, with its long tradition of responding to crime temperately and usually without firearms, no deaths occurred in the mayhem. And yet the pronouncements and many of the actions of the government are disturbingly similar to those in truly repressive countries. Rather than seeking and addressing the root causes of the violence, they only serve to heighten the frustration and anger of those who feel cut off and boxed in.
And the denigration continues. In a speech on Monday, having had plenty of time for considered reflection, Cameron expanded his analysis beyond criminality, pure and simple. Calling the riots symptoms of "the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country" — and everybody knows just which parts he meant — he ticked off the causes: crimes without punishment, undisciplined schools, absentee fathers, and that other old standby, "moral relativism." Not a word of compassion, not a hint of awareness, not a sign of support.
Opposition leader Ed Miliband broadened the scope of British decrepitude to encompass "greedy, selfish, and immoral" bankers, phone hackers, and politicians — examples, he said, of "a me- first, take-what-you-can culture." Enough incrimination to go around, but still just incrimination.
He might also have included the 100,000 citizens who signed a government website's petition in support of the eviction proposal.
For indications of the "moral collapse" of British society, Cameron should look no further than his own nose. Any government built on retribution rather than healing, on blaming the poor for their poverty, and on denying the role of racism in policy and policing is itself in moral collapse.
We Americans have been through this ourselves often enough, and in many ways the attitudes of our leaders today mirror those of Britain's. Even President Obama, who from his early work in community organizing should be the first to go to bat for the poor, has extended his compassion no further down than to the middle class.
Cutbacks in social programs and job-creating public works are just beginning to affect the most vulnerable here. Lacking hope for the future, what more is there than to take what you can, when you can? One wonders if and when the patience of our own desperate will snap.