Back in 2006, I began noticing, and then tracking, the increasing number of teenagers being convicted of murder. Then, the total for the year was a little over forty. In 2008 there have been twenty-nine such convictions so far.
Last year, my attention switched to the number of teenagers becoming victims of murder, generally by people of a similar age. And finally this year, with (by my tally) thirty-one such deaths by the end of May, the media and politicians seem to have begun to take notice.
Not that there have been no attempts previously to reduce youth crime. Indeed, there have already been a number of anti-knife campaigns aimed at young people. But as the BBC reported recently, youth crime remains stubbornly resistant to all the money being thrown at it.
Thus hopes and expectations for a new campaign which has just been announced must remain low. Indeed, the content of this campaign seems misguided from the outset, despite it depending on advice taken from young people themselves.
The campaign sets out to ‘shock’ with pictures of actual knife wounds and is aimed, ostensibly, at the YouTube generation. But it seems to overlook the fact that a common feature of many attacks is that they are videoed and the graphic results proudly displayed on YouTube for all to see or sent round via mobile phones. The effect has not been a surge of crime-reduction.
My suspicion, therefore, is that youngsters of the knife carrying and using variety will regard these ‘official’ images as (a) pretty tame and (b) something else to be pored over and relished. The response will not be, “O how awful! I’d better leave my knife at home in case I hurt someone,” but, “Core! Have you seen this bloke with a knife sticking out of his chest?” (just one of the images available.)
What this campaign also seems to overlook is the fact that these murders carried out on and by teens are not all done with knives. A gun, a baseball bat, a stave, a shard of glass, a fist and a stamp to the head are all in the ‘armoury’ of the modern young killer.
And this tells us something important: it is not knives that are the problem, but people. What has changed is not the carrying of knives (in the 1950s and 60s, Boy Scouts regularly carried knives). Rather it is the, quite literally, murderous nature of fights and disputes. Where once boys fought with something akin to ‘Queensbury Rules’, now it seems ‘anything goes’, and where the intention was once to stop your opponent from continuing the fight, now actually killing them has become acceptable.
We are back in the world of Lamech, one of the most despicable characters in the Bible, held up as an example of human depravity: “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me.” (Genesis 4:23)
So what is the answer? It is not, I suggest, government campaigns. Indeed, I and others have argued that it is public policy which is ultimately to blame for some of our present difficulties in this regard.
Certainly there is room for manouevre in the courts. Very few offenders — a mere handful — are serving anything like the maximum possible sentence for possession of a knife.
Ministers and police tell the parents to take responsibility, but having placed themselves in loco parentis through their own policies of education, welfare, social care and so on, plus the inhibition of parental discipline, they fail to exercise precisely the discipline they require from others. Instead of a stated punishment being inflicted, the child offender is constantly let off. We know what that does in the home. Why should we imagine it is any different ‘on the street’ with regard to public authority?
Ultimately, however, it is human values which determine human behaviour, and here it is indeed ‘street’ wisdom, or the rules of the playground, which have most influence. In my childhood, kicking was considered something ‘not done’ during a fight. Indeed, fighting was (and I suspect is) a ‘ritualized’ activity — the gathering circle of boys shouting “Oi, oi, oi, oi” (why? because you did, that’s why), the use of fists, the absence of biting or hair pulling (too girlie), and the instant cessation of hostilities (and accompanying relief) when a master showed up.
Children will stop killing when they internalize a set of values. That is why I suggest the title for this piece might be a more effective deterrent than a graphic photo of a knife-wound. Being confronted by violence will only prevent violence amongst the sensitive. The boy who knows he is the hardest thing on his street or in his gang is not going to be deterred by something that is supposed to appeal to his sensitive side. Knowing other people think he is a prick just might do it, though.
Revd John P Richardson
29 May 2008