Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Reality hits his home

Andrew Anthony's article in The Observer this Sunday made the rounds of the blogs. Unsurprisingly really, considering that this was one of those 'paradigm shift' stories: 9/11 forcing a comfortable liberal to re-examine all his assumptions. Perhaps more surprising is that the article soon changes course, tacking away from the international focus of its first part to spend most of its words on something nearer to us and grittier: personal security in the streets of this country and in our homes.

It is also a personal thing. Not only has Anthony been burgled three times, but he intervened in a mugging in Maida Vale, London. A 16-year-old girl had been set upon by a gang of girls and stabbed in the face with a broken bottle. Not one of the many passers-by intervened, and when Anthony did, he was accused of being a "pompous prick", an opinion echoed more gently by his friends.

Most agreed that it was not the clever thing to do, if only because of the risks he ran of being stabbed himself. It was a job for the police, not for the 'citizen'. It's just good sense, isn't it? That's their job, not ours.

However, such a narrow conception of civic responsibility helps foster a sense of social detachment and places a heavy burden on already stretched police resources. And that has several negative consequences. For a start it fails to present a communal challenge to criminal attitudes and behaviour. Nor is it very effective in terms of policing or deterrence. The reason that those girls walked slowly away was because they knew from experience that it was unlikely the police would arrive quickly enough to apprehend them. Relying exclusively on the police is usually a means of guaranteeing that the culprit escapes capture.

Effectively it cedes the streets to the violent.

His segue from the international to the local puzzled me a little at first. But, though he doesn't make the link in this article, it is there for all to see. A vacuum has been left by the 'authorities', however you define them. The public space of our streets has been evacuated by the public, us. The international space was abandoned by the great powers.

We, the public, or, if you like, the middle classes, have been cowed by the charges of hypocrisy and class oppression into abolishing the difference between public and private and can no longer use shame to govern behaviour on our streets. The dress and behaviour code once imposed the moment you stepped outside was hounded and brought to bay by the liberal revolution of the Sixties and now lives the half-life of dissent on the letters pages of local newspapers. Sincerity and self-expression became the only public virtues. And if they sometimes tip over into intimidation and violence, then that was the fault of the society whose victim they were. As Anthony says, "Effectively it cedes the streets to the violent."

So, too, in the international sphere, the only force capable of keeping order was the Western democracies. But were they not delegitimised by imperialism and economic exploitation? Even the one Western country not tainted by that vice was cowed into passivity by the same charges. The United States, having won the Cold War, did not take on the part of international policeman, despite being the only power that could do so and despite terrorist attacks (the international version of the assault by the gang in Maida Vale) in 1993, 1996, 1998 and 2000. Europe was incapable; the US was unwilling. "Effectively it cedes the streets (Arab or otherwise) to the violent."

So in the UK, instead of the many eyes of the public, we have a multitude of CCTV cameras. Internationally, instead of the enforcement of the powerful, we have the random violence of the powerless. As the Irishman said,

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

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