The World from Berlin: 'Riots Reveal the Decay of British Society'
After the fourth night of riots in England, observers are asking what is behind the wave of violence. German commentators argue that the unrest reflects a deep-seated malaise at the heart of British society.
Britain is searching for answers after four consecutive nights of riots that have shocked the country and led to hundreds of arrests.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who cut short his vacation in Italy in reaction to this week's violence, was due to chair a meeting of Cobra, the British government's emergency council, on Wednesday to discuss how to proceed. He has recalled the British parliament, which will meet on Thursday to discuss the rioting, the worst violence of its kind in Britain since race riots in the 1980s.
Violence spread to an increasingly number of towns and cities around England, however, including Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, where groups of young men in hooded tops looted shops and set fire to cars and buildings. In one of the most serious incidents, a police station in Nottingham was firebombed. Violence was also reported in Wolverhampton, Leicester, Bristol and Gloucester.
Youth have reportedly been using mobile phones and social media to organize the disturbances. In some places they reportedly played cat-and-mouse games with police, who appeared overwhelmed at times. So far police have not used heavy-duty, anti-riot tactics such as tear gas or water cannon, but some conservative and right-wing politicians have called for a harder crackdown on the unrest.
There were reports of residents in some cities organizing to protect their businesses and neighborhoods. In Southall, west London, local Sikhs insisted they would protect their temple against rioters. Meanwhile the leader of the far-right English Defense League, Stephen Lennon, has said his group would "stop the riots," claiming the police were unable to cope with the situation.
A murder inquiry has been launched in Birmingham after a car ran over and killed three Muslim men. The men were reported to have been part of a group that was trying to protect their neighborhood. A 26-year-old man who was found shot in a car in the London suburb of Croydon on Monday has since died in hospital. He is believed to have been shot during unrest there.
The authorities have been shocked by the scale of the rioting. "This has been senseless on a scale I have never witnessed before in my career," commented Garry Shewan, assistant chief constable of Greater Manchester police.
Police in London said they had arrested 768 people since the rioting began, and charged 167 suspects. One arrested youth was only 11 years old. Dozens of youths were arrested in other cities, with 300 arrested in the Greater Manchester area alone. A total of 1,335 people have been arrested since the unrest began. Over 110 London police officers have been injured in the violence.
London Mayor Boris Johnson, who was heckled Tuesday during a visit to a damaged shopping street in Clapham, has said that plans to cut police numbers should be reconsidered in the light of the violence.
The riots come less than a year before London is due to host the Olympics Games. Johnson insisted that the city would be able to host the event as planned. "We have time in the next 12 months to rebuild, to repair the damage that has been done," he said.
A soccer game between England and the Netherlands that was supposed to take place in London on Wednesday has been cancelled because too few police officers are available to guarantee security, given the massive show of force elsewhere in the city.
Search for Explanations
The rioting was sparked by the fatal shooting by police of a 29-year-old black man, Mark Duggan, in the London area of Tottenham on Saturday under disputed circumstances. A loaded handgun was recovered from the scene, but the Independent Police Complaints Commission said Tuesday there was no evidence that Duggan had fired on police before he was shot. An inquest into his death began Tuesday, but it is expected to take months to reach a conclusion.
Observers have come up with a myriad of explanations for the wave of violence. The initial rioting on Saturday appears to have been at least partially motivated by long-simmering resentment among the black community at heavy-handed policing. But the people involved in rioting since then have been white and Asian as well as black. Rising social exclusion, high youth unemployment and inequality has also been blamed, especially as the British government has recently announced far-reaching austerity measures.
But there also seems to be an element of recreational rioting and a desire to challenge the authorities. "Come join the fun!" shouted one youth in Hackney amid unrest there, the Associated Press reported. Garry Shewan of Greater Manchester police was also skeptical about the rioters' motives. "These people have nothing to protest against," he said. "There is no sense of injustice or any spark that has led to this."
On Wednesday, German commentators try to explain the wave of violence.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Few other cities offer the kind of concentrated luxury for anyone who can afford it that London has. The crisis isn't even palpable to people moving in wealthy circles. And it's not only the economic turbulence that has been largely unfelt by the super-rich, but also the effects of the brutal savings plan that Cameron's liberal-conservative government has prescribed. In other parts of the country, some can no longer afford the mortgages on their homes, but the prices of penthouse apartments in Knightsbridge or Kensington are rising sharply."
"This is the background against which one must view the riots that are taking place all across socio-economically depressed areas of London and the country. Anyone who says that they came as a surprise is denying reality. Behind the glittering facade that Britain presents, so much pent-up irritation, resentment and anger has built up that all it took was a spark to trigger an explosion."
"It is no coincidence that intelligent observers are drawing parallels between the popular uprisings taking place in the Arab spring and the street battles of this London summer. The British teens, with their hooded tops may be the citizens of a functioning democracy which is proud of being the world's oldest. But elections mean nothing to them and will not do anything to change their personal situation. The prospects of these youth in London are as dismal as those of young people in Cairo or Sana'a: They need unemployment benefits, odd jobs, state handouts and perhaps a bit of petty crime to stay afloat. The message to the British underclass couldn't be any clearer: Born poor, you will remain poor and that naturally also applies to your children and grandchildren. Your chances of winning the lottery are greater than breaking out of your class."
"In no other country in Europe is inequality as cemented in society as in the United Kingdom. Today, as in the past, a person's name, family and place of birth is decisive when it comes to establishing a career. Regardless whether a person is a politician, executive or journalist, they all went to the same schools, studied the same subjects and speak the same refined English they were taught by their parents."
"The riots are in no way a purely British problem. There is social distress all across Europe, as hard-up countries are forced to scrimp and save. And there are teenagers and 20-somethings all over who will be forced to assume a mountain of debt that has been carelessly accumulated by the postwar generation. They are already being referred to as the Lost Generation. The rioting youth in London are the ugly flip side of this generation. But they all feel lost, regardless of where they are in Europe."
The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Certainly talk will once again turn to the high unemployment rate among young people, their social exclusion and lack of opportunity. These are the catch phrases always used to explain -- if not justify -- cases in which young people act out their violent tendencies and refuse to recognize authority. The British government will also likely be named the main culprit because of its austerity measures."
"Yes, miserable social conditions can be miserable, but they are no justification for lawlessness. The police must not give the streets over to the rioters. The politicians, who are responsible for the police, should at least consider whether the 'softly-softly" approach of the British police is appropriate -- or an invitation to brutal street criminality."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"The situation playing out on London's streets has nothing to do with social protest. There are neither clear political goals, nor an identifiable movement with leaders. And it is mainly the victims who now face social collapse. These countless small business owners, who exist at poverty level, now stand before ruins while their customers shop at safer malls and supermarkets."
"But the reaction of this local civil society inspires hope. Financially they are on very thin ice, and they are enraged by how carelessly and stupidly the youths are destroying their own environment. The many local, self-organized cleanup initiatives show that societal forces are more imaginative than the state -- in particular David Cameron's government -- when it comes to dealing with social tensions."
The financial daily Handelsblatt writes:
"The riots reveal fundamental societal problems that extend far beyond London and England. They are too deep for the short-term austerity measures to have had much influence. There wasn't just looting in troubled areas, but also in the affluent district of Notting Hill and among the middle class in trendy Clapham. The riots reveal the decay of society at its edges, brought on by deeply cemented inequality, the erosion of social norms, great frustration and a lack of opportunity for the lower class."
"An uninhibited, unscrupulous part of society is baring its hideous face -- whether it is in the metro stations of Berlin and Munich (where random violence has shocked Germany), or on the streets of London ... The riots show that some people simply take pleasure in violence, which they engage in without inhibitions when given the opportunity."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"British Prime Minister David Cameron called the excesses 'criminality pure and simple.' But his statements are too simple. And they distract from what lies behind the overwhelming violence: the frustration over the British elite."
"The British elite has systematically compromised itself in recent years. They claimed to be a role model, or at least trustworthy. In the economic crisis the financial establishment declared bankruptcy, and British politicians became mired in the expenses scandal of 2009. Then this year the media and politicians have been damaged by the Murdoch scandal. When the country's elites don't take the law seriously, why should we? No question is more dangerous for a society."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"The country has lost faith in every authority: the banks, politicians, the media, the police. The corruption has reached even the smallest unit -- the family. There is a generation growing up without values of any kind."
"Even when the fires are quelled and the streets are cleaned, the deeper problems will remain. Britain must have a debate over its values. They actually need someone like [controversial German anti-immigration author] Thilo Sarrazin who speaks the uncomfortable truths. Perhaps David Cameron, the super-rich prime minister with the baroness wife, who now has to lead Britain through hard times, would be a good person to do some plain talking. But everything will probably remain the same. The Brits will fall back into their standard stoic mentality. 'Keep Calm and Carry On.' Until the next riot."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"The unrest in London is a form of hooliganism by losers who are living in a society which no longer has anything left to offer losers. Among the arsonists are people who no longer possess any values. They've gotten used to drawing money from the state and they complain when the handouts stop coming as generously as they did in the past. This is a problem that, within the foreseeable future, many more Europeans are going to be confronted with, including many young people. This is because most European countries have been living far beyond their means. They will, without exception, be forced to cut back their spending."
"And with that development, an outmoded illusion of prosperity will be lost -- namely the belief that everything will continue to get better, without us Europeans having to make much of an effort. In part, the peace in Europe of the past 66 years has also been bought through increasingly generous welfare states. But those days are over. The strength of Europe's democracy will now be measured based on how sustainably societies change their values to reflect that reality."
-- SPIEGEL ONLINE staff
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