It’s a sad thing to watch a great nation — in its day, the greatest of all nations — descend into moral chaos. It’s sadder still to watch as that nation’s elites acquiesce to the descent. Witness the state of affairs in England, where four people were killed during the recent riots, which swept across London and through other cities like some kind of modern-day plague.
I’ve spent but seven days in England, confining myself primarily to some of London’s quieter, safer areas, with one day spent with friends in their quaintest of English cottages in the quaintest of English towns. The trip was brief enough and so limited in scope that I was able to keep alive the England of my dreams, that most civilized of countries that once ruled the world, and even in the decline of its empire raised a fist to Hitler and endured the Blitz and Dunkirk before rearing up and chasing the Huns out of North Africa and across Europe. The England of my dreams is a country of ladies and gentlemen who hold their heads high and keep their upper lips stiff.
Alas, the mother country isn’t what it used to be. If you keep your head held high and your upper lip stiff over there these days, some yob is likely to come along and smash you in the face with a brick. And then someone will write in the Guardian that it was your fault.
I watched coverage of the English riots with no little sympathy for the police officers sent out to deal with them. In April 1992, I spent three nights chasing rioters hither and thither on the streets of South Los Angeles. That riot, like the recent violence in England, started as a protest to an incident of perceived police abuse. In Los Angeles, the spark was supplied by the videotaped police beating of Rodney King and the subsequent acquittal of the four LAPD officers brought to trial because of it. In England, it was a protest over the police shooting death of Mark Duggan.
But whether in Los Angeles or London, the precipitating events were merely the sparks that ignited the fuel, like lightning striking a parched forest. Whatever honest claims to outrage might have been made by the original demonstrators, the violence that followed was nothing more than lawlessness masquerading as social protest. As a gang member turned informant told me in 1992, “F*** Rodney King. Rodney King ain’t no Crip. We don’t give a s*** about Rodney King.” And I’m sure that in England, not one rioter in a thousand could have told you who Mark Duggan was.
Also like in Los Angeles in 1992, the police in London appeared unwilling or unable to confront the sudden outbreak of violence, linked as it was, however tenuously, to a controversial police use of force. In both cases the rioting lasted for three days, with isolated incidents continuing for days more.
And just as was the case in Los Angeles, in England there is no shortage of commentary seeking to excuse the rioters’ behavior as the logical consequence of mistreatment by the government, the police, the rich, or what have you. With the excuse making comes the implicit threat that if the government doesn’t rain down large sums of money on all those oppressed people, well, don’t say you weren’t warned.
To his great credit, British Prime Minister David Cameron cited a “moral collapse” as one cause of the riots, which of course was greeted by howls of derision from elites on both sides of the Atlantic. The New York Times, in a display of moral confusion one might expect to find in a high school newspaper, editorialized thus:
Mr. Cameron, a product of Britain’s upper classes and schools, has blamed the looting and burning on a compound of national moral decline, bad parenting and perverse inner-city subcultures.
Would he find similar blame — this time in the culture of the well housed and well off — for Britain’s recent tabloid phone hacking scandals or the egregious abuse of expense accounts by members of Parliament?
You see? He’s from a good family and good schools, so he is unqualified to render judgment on those so driven by desperation that they are impelled to join the mobs running amok and helping themselves to other people’s property, especially when members of his own kind have been caught behaving so objectionably. Not to excuse those involved in the phone hacking and expense account scandals, but do the editors at the New York Times not recognize a distinction between these crimes and the mob violence seen in England two weeks ago?
But now, what’s to be done about it all? Seeking solutions to Britain’s crime problem, Cameron has reached out to William Bratton, former head of the police departments in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, who has agreed to be an unpaid adviser on gangs and street crime. As one might expect, Cameron’s solicitation of Bratton was received less than warmly by police officials in England. Sir Hugh Orde, Great Britain’s chief constable, was dismissive of what Bratton might contribute to the discussion. “I am not sure I want to learn about gangs from an area of America that has 400 of them,” Orde told the Independent. “It seems to me, if you’ve got 400 gangs, then you’re not being very effective. If you look at the style of policing in the States, and their levels of violence, they are so fundamentally different from here.”
Well, who better? I’ve had my bones to pick with Bratton over the years, but his record on cutting crime speaks for itself. If he has something to contribute to the discussion, why not listen? And it should be noted that the gang problem in Los Angeles predates William Bratton’s arrival. There were more than 51,000 violent crimes in Los Angeles the year before he became chief of the LAPD, but by the time he moved on that figure had been cut by more than half. Can Orde, or any other police executive in England, claim even a remotely similar level of accomplishment?
Bratton’s methods are simple enough: enforce the law and let violators suffer the consequences. Writing at the City Journal website, Steven Malanga quotes an unnamed Scotland Yard official who described his unease at the thought of seeing Bratton’s ways employed in England. “Lock people up?” he said. “We haven’t got the heart for that over here.”
Just so. But there’s nothing quite like a riot to inspire a change of heart, is there?
Orde and the rest can pretend that the rioting seen in England was nothing more than the antics of some wayward youths, like Bertie Wooster pinching a policeman’s helmet on Boat Race Night. You can whistle past the graveyard all you like, but even if you’re whistling “Rule Britannia,” the graveyard will still be right there.