It may seem odd to some Americans that the British government appears so reluctant to deal with the rioting. It is. It is hard to imagine a situation in which the governor of an American state would come out, as Prime Minister David Cameron did yesterday, and promise a “fightback,” which would employ “every option,” only to be immediately contradicted by law enforcement: Everything is on the table, said Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of the Chief Police Officers, except for water cannon, plastic bullets, or baton rounds. This, in a country where the police do not carry firearms or tasers, except in exceptional circumstances. If these circumstances — described by the Assistant Chief Constable of Great Manchester police as “the most sickening scenes” he has ever seen in that city — do not warrant anything beyond the usual sticks and shield, it is hard to imagine what would. And thus we have the two faces of the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who seems to see no contradiction between promising a “tough, robust approach,” and unilaterally ruling out any of the means by which that could be achieved. If it weren’t so serious, it would be comical.
The torching of old and beloved buildings and the wanton destruction of property make good photographs and exciting news, but it is worth reminding ourselves that four people have now died. In addition to the shooting of a 26-year-old man in Croydon, three young men were run over and killed while they protected their property in Birmingham on Tuesday. As I point out in my piece on the homepage today, far from these riots being an expression of disenfranchisement, or a response to the hardship imposed by austerity measures, they are the pitting of barbarians against civilization. It is not the well-educated and wealthy government officials who are being hit, nor the bankers and corporations, but largely immigrants, small business owners, and families. Insofar as the rioters are stealing things to improve their lot, they are doing it from each other.
The reticence of the authorities is odd, and it is unnacceptable. But it might be worth noting for those less familiar with British political culture that there is a reason for the weakness. For years Britain was torn apart by the IRA, in what was colloquially known as “the Troubles.” Use of the army, heavily-armed police, water cannon, and such are, especially for older people, inextricably linked with events which we would rather forget. The caution of the government to deploy such measures is admirable, but such prudence can only be taken so far before it descends into negligence. The time for Keeping Calm And Carrying On has passed. Now it is time to restore order, even if it doesn’t look pretty on the ten o’clock news.