The Blog

Britain's Wake-Up Call

A string of youth homicides sparks a national soul-searching.

11:00 PM, Feb 28, 2007 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

London
The startled reaction to a string of youth homicides in south London suggests that Great Britain may be edging into a national debate about the deepest causes of social breakdown. That's the good news. The debate, after all, is long overdue. The bad news is that, based on the BBC's coverage of this story, it's anybody's guess which voices will shape the outcome of this national soul-searching.

The facts are gruesome enough. Three teenagers were shot dead in separate spasms of violence over a two-week period: Michael Dosunmu, 15, in his bedroom in Peckham; James Andre Smartt-Ford, 16, at an ice rink in Streatham; and Billy Cox, 15, in his home in Clapham. The last victim, shot in the chest, was found bleeding to death by his 12-year-old sister. At a church service for Billy over the weekend, Rev. Sue Peake lamented "the hideous pressure on youngsters growing up in our inner cities."

This is the kind of desperate brutality Britons expect to hear about in south Boston, south-central Los Angeles, or southeast Washington, D.C. Not in London. What are they to make of it?

There's the law-and-order response: Crack down on juvenile offenders, criminalize gang membership, and put more police on the beat. It's a view by no means confined to political conservatives. Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, used a Sunday appearance on BBC One to announce a vigorous review of gun laws and a plan to lower the age, from 21 to 17, at which young people can get long prison sentences for gun possession. Mr. Blair followed it up with a "gun summit" bringing together government officials, police, and community leaders. (A similar summit was held in 2003 following several high-profile shootings.)

There's the social welfare response: Ratchet up government spending on education, welfare services, and after-school programs. Liberal Democrats such as Sir Menzies Campbell complain about "a disenfranchised generation," for example, but say little about the responsibilities of families or local communities. They echo the slippery, therapeutic rhetoric that has become the stock and trade of liberal American politicians such as Ted Kennedy and minister-activists such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Jim Wallis.

There's the "abandon all hope" response: An entire generation of young people is being lost to drugs and gangs, and we'd better just get used to it. One gang member told the BBC he was wearing a bullet-proof vest because shootings in his neighborhood had become so random. Norman Brannan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust, seemed almost as fatalistic: "These youngsters will live by the gun and die by the gun," he said. "These are walking assassins and walking assassins never care about the sentence they are going to get."

There's another response, however, one that seems closer to the heart of this particular darkness: Take the family seriously, especially the indispensable role of fathers to family well-being. This is the message embedded in the "Breakdown Britain" report, released by the Conservative Party's Social Justice Policy Group two months before this latest outbreak of youth violence. "A harsh street culture acts as a magnet to disaffected boys from broken and dysfunctional homes," writes MP Iain Duncan Smith, the report's chief author. "In this culture, life becomes cheap and violence engenders respect. In the absence of a structured and balanced family, the street gang becomes an alternative 'family.'"

Mr. Smith, whose Centre for Social Justice supports research of this kind, is one of just a handful of politicians who views religious and church-based organizations as crucial actors in renewing families and neighborhoods blighted by crime. Yet he seems to speak for lots of people in the trenches. As a neighborhood leader told BBC 24: "I'd like to see greater respect for these local and faith-based groups that are doing so much with so little."

Conservative party leader David Cameron picked up part of this theme in remarks last week. Cameron qualified the importance of policing, gun control, or national solutions to a cultural problem--a problem, he said, that "lies within families and communities." Aides tell me he is determined to push strategies--beyond those that are merely punitive--that encourage responsible fatherhood. Whether Cameron has the fortitude to aggressively promote the moral and religious ideals that are central to this insight remains to be seen.