Riots in Britain
Anarchy in the UK
A bout of violent mindlessness that has shaken Britain’s sense of self—and may be exportable
Aug 13th 2011 | from the print edition
SHAME was the first response of many people in Britain to the riots that started in the Tottenham neighbourhood of London on August 6th, skipped across the capital in the following days and nights and spread to Manchester, Birmingham and many other cities. Alongside the shame, there was a jolting bafflement. The law-abiding majority suddenly saw that some of their compatriots were happy to torch cars and buildings, loot shops, and attack firemen and ambulance crews. The confidence trick at the heart of the social order was violently laid bare: it turns out that if sufficient numbers of criminals want to create havoc on the streets, they can. In the absence of internal, moral restraints, external ones can only do so much.
The world watched London in fascinated amazement. Other nations tend to regard Britain as enviably orderly and law-abiding, at least compared with many of its more excitable continental neighbours. That peaceable image is only partly justified: contagious rioting has broken out before, typically during the summer, including in the 1980s, when Tottenham and some of the other flashpoint areas this week last erupted. This time, however, the complexion of the trouble is different from those earlier flare-ups. In its sheer mindlessness, it was, in a way, even more depressing.