The sight of people piling into a shop and looting it makes me very sad indeed. One can't help thinking of the owner's reaction when they come back to their business. It is not right.
However, following the sudden plague of violence - originally stemming from a demonstration turning nasty at a shooting by police in Tottenham but seemingly having long since forgotten about that incident - I've been slightly disturbed by the reactions of onlookers, media and society generally.
Twitter has been jammed with people saying this sort of thing:
"Any other country would take control. Martial Law. The Army needs to come in the Police have lost control of our streets."
I find this incredibly depressing. We watch the Arab Spring uprisings and hope and pray that the people of those countries can make their voices heard and when we see armed forces being used as violent instruments of terror and tools of complete subjugation we, quiet rightly, are outraged. This is not how we should treat people we think. And yet, those very same people are baying for young armed men trained in warfare to "teach a lesson" to the criminal looters and "regain control" of the streets. I don't often agree with Theresa May, but her response to these calls has been admirable. She was on the news this morning reiterating that in this country we police in consent and by cooperation with the public. And thank goodness for that; I personally don't want to live in a society where the police and the army are used in such a manner. And it would be especially dangerous in the wake of the police's corruption and moral ambiguity we were all correctly condemning in the wake of the phone hacking scandals.
I also worry about our country's class divisions, uncomfortably lit up by this strange and frightening epidemic. Lots of middle class people (like me) calling these young men chavs, thugs, despicable and the like isn't going to solve the problem. I don't condone their criminality in any way, but that doesn't stop it happening. It is happening right now. It has happened. The question is why it has happened, and how can we stop it happening again? The truth of the matter is that we live in a society that is utterly and seemingly irreparably riven. We are fortunate to have a huge and reasonably affluent middle class in this country, but, almost because of this, we're very good at ignoring the social problems and plights of those stuck at the bottom of our class structure. They are there and they are real. At best, we take the micky out of them and satirise them, but mostly we try to ignore them and tut at them when they dare to appear on our radar. But there they are. It's not just wealth, but a poverty aspiration, self-worth, and a feeling of genuine detachment from the rest of society that means that people start to behave in this way. At the risk of being incredibly patronising, imagine this scenario: a child is ignored by his parents; it wants to feel loved and cared for but is ignored completely (except for the occasions on which it is derided and mocked) until it does something naughty and then it is vilified and condemned. Who do we blame? The child? Or do we need to take a long look at our parenting skills? Naughty is naughty, but there's always something, some reason or motivation behind the naughtiness, as any teacher or parent will tell you.
I'm not saying that this sense of dissatisfaction is explicitly what goes through a young man's head as he climbs through a smashed shop window looking for bottles to throw at the police and a watch to nick But I do believe it's a factor and that we should think about our role in that too. We are society: there's no in or out. Like it or not, those people on the telly burning stuff and you and I are all part of the same thing.
And as such, I think the most powerful thing that can happen is for society to engage with this problem. I'm inspired by the people in London going out to clear up the streets; I'm inspired by people reacting in love, compassion and without judgement. I hope that we and our government looks at this carefully and reflects on how our community can let things like this happen, how we can allow individuals to be so detached from society and so contemptuous of law and order and so devoid of respect for their fellow citizens. Because problems don't go away just because we ignore them.