The Second Greatest Risk after Terrorism London Haunted by Relentless Spate of Stabbings

Shaquille was 14 when he bled to death beside a park bench. Ben died at age 16, Robert was 18. A total of 27 youths have been stabbed to death in London this year. Police and politicians seem powerless to stop the violence, which stems in part from a growing gap between the haves and have-nots.
Von Stefan Marx

London in autumn is no place for people of a nervous disposition. Fireworks are set off on street corners ahead of Bonfire Night on Nov. 5, and in the southern borough of Southwark, figures with white-painted faces lurk in the shadows trying to lure tourists into the "London Dungeon," a chamber of horrors.

But young people in Southwark and elsewhere in the British capital are in very real fear for their lives. This year alone, 27 teenagers have been murdered in London, more than in the whole of 2007. Most of the murders have been caused by stabbing. Scotland Yard says knife murders among youths are the second biggest security risk in London after possible terrorist attacks.

Figures from the London police show that Londoners aged 17 to 20 are at an above-average risk of being attacked with a knife. More and more teenagers are carrying knives, usually because they're afraid of being attacked themselves. London police have confiscated 2,600 knives from youths searched in the street this year alone.

According to a report in Britain's Independent newspaper, the number of stabbings is far higher than police statistics suggest. In 2007, the newspaper reported, 14,000 people were taken to hospital with stabbing and cutting wounds, an increase of 19 percent from the previous year.

Scotland Yard has set up a task force of 75 officers to tackle the problem but its increased activity has failed to prevent killings such as the murder of Oliver Kingonzila. The 19-year-old, a talented soccer player who was said to have a professional career ahead of him, was stabbed to death on a Friday night in September in a bar in the south London borough of Croydon.

Shortly after Kingonzila's death, the front of the pub was a haunting scene. His blood was spattered on the glass door and dozens of bunches of flowers and condolence cards had been laid among the cigarette butts. Many of the cards carried the simple question many in London are asking: "Why?"

Oliver had got into an altercation with some people in front of the pub. Suddenly one of them pulled a knife. Two 18-year-olds were arrested later. The pub has since shut down.

Knives Pulled at the Slightest Provocation

Many young people have been killed or hurt in fights outside pubs at night. But stabbings often occur in broad daylight as well. Sometimes they happen simply because someone took offence at being looked at. Or because the victim accidentally walked into a gang fight in a housing estate. All cases have one thing in common: the victims were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

For years, Londoners felt safe and dismissed stabbings as a problem affecting socially disadvantaged minorities. But the problem has spread to prosperous areas. In May, 18-year-old actor Robert Knox was stabbed to death in the upmarket borough of Islington, where Tony Blair lived before he became Prime Minister. Rob Knox played a pupil in the latest Harry Potter film.

Murder in a Bourgeois Suburb

In July, Ben Kinsella, the 16-year-old brother of a TV soap opera star, was murdered in the bourgeois suburb of Sidcup.

Kate Bradley, a social policy analyst at the University of Kent, sees the root of the problem in the British class system. The perpetrators, regardless of whether they're white or black, are have-nots from problem boroughs. "They're young people who have no job and no prospects, who don't know what to do with their free time and who have no hopes for the future," she says.

Often the stabbings are perpetrated by men with low self-confidence, who respond to even the slightest suggestion of an insult by pulling out a knife, often without intending to kill. "The stabbings often involve a fatal combination of excess strength and coincidental provocation," Bradley told SPIEGEL ONLINE. The problem isn't confined solely to the poorer districts of English inner cities. The youths who go out looking for trouble move through the city in search of distraction. But it's mainly poorer people who fear youth gangs -- they're the easiest victims.

Luxury Villas Side by Side With Problem Estates

Social inequality has increased in England in recent years: while the middle and upper classes profited from 12 years of economic growth, the number of young people with no school qualifications or job training increased. There are areas of London where millionaires' villas and poor housing estates are just a street apart. Now, with the British boom years drawing to a close, an embarrassed government is preparing people for a rise in crime.

The opposition Conservative Party sees the teenager murders as clear evidence of its theory that Britain is a "broken society" marked by broken families, alcoholism, violence and ignorance. The crime rate is "out of control," Tory leader David Cameron has been declaring for months, over and over again.

But analyst Kate Bradley sees no reason to panic. "A lot of what we're seeing is by no means new -- it's a phenomenon of big cities," she says.

For decades, about about one-fifth of all violent crime has involved knives. The awareness of knife crime has risen because the fear of violence has increased. But Bradley too is aware of the figures showing that in 2006/2007 a total of 203 males under 30 were murdered, an increase by a quarter since 2002/2003.

The statistics and the human tragedies behind them prompted around 1,000 people to protest against knife crime last month in London's Hyde Park. The march was led by victims' relatives including the grandmother of Shaquille Smith. Her 14-year-old grandson was stabbed to death in September by around a dozen youths in east London. Shaquille had been sitting on a park bench when the group assaulted him.

'We Can't Stop the Supply of Knives'

The march, which was also attended by politicians and celebrities including athlete Dwain Chambers, turned into a demonstration of collective helplessness. "We can't stop the supply of knives," said Mark Simmons, the Scotland Yard officer in charge of combating knife crime. "They're in every kitchen cupboard." The remainder of his speech was drowned out by booing from the crowd.

London Mayor Boris Johnson wants to present new proposals in November for tackling the spate of stabbings. He says he's sad about the 27 deaths this year, that the gangs have to be broken up and that these youths need to be given an education and prospects.

There's nothing new to that insight. But there's little hope of a quick fix. The fear of being stabbed will continue to haunt London's teenagers.

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