London Burning: The Search Continues for What Sparked the England Riots |

London Burning: The Search Continues for What Sparked the England Riots

Approved by TCP Anne Marie Walker

More than a week after the riots in England, many people—both in the UK and abroad—are asking the same set of questions. What exactly happened? How did this start? What compelled ordinary British citizens with no criminal history to participate in the chaos? More importantly, how can this be prevented from happening again?

Ever since the first brick was thrown, answers almost immediately popped up as to what was to blame. The left blamed the crumbling economy and the decreased job opportunities for young people and immigrants as well as the soon to be enacted budget cuts on social programs; whereas the right touted that the decay of morals and the collapse of the traditional family structure was the culprit. Others merely shrugged and lamented that while the riots were a tragedy, England has had a notorious history of them and we shouldn't act surprised. 

Even the present and former prime ministers cannot agree as to the exact cause.  Prime Minister David Cameron, in an article published in the Sunday Express, boldly stated that "The greed and thuggery we saw during the riots did not come out of nowhere...There are deep problems in our society that have been growing for a long time: a decline in responsibility, a rise in  selfishness, a growing sense that individual rights come before anything else."

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, however, took the opposite stance in an article published in the Observer. In the article, he argued that the blame belongs to "the group of young, alienated, disaffected youth who are outside the solid mainstream and who live in a culture at odds with any canon of proper behavior." Blair also stated that these "disaffected " youths should also be the subject of specific policies designed to help turn their lives around.

Cameron also believes in programs for at-risk youth; in his article, he stated that because of the riots, he will expand his national citizen service program that would enable teenagers to make improvements in their community. How this program will be funded and implemented was not elaborated.

While both Cameron and Blair agree that the riots were sparked by a disenfranchised youth, the two diverged as to the root cause; the former believes that there is a strong lack of morality in the country's youth, while the latter believes that to attribute "moral decline" as the cause is to "trash our own reputation abroad."

Other commenters on this subject, including Christopher Hitchens, argue that England has witnessed a plethora of violent protests even in its most recent history.  In a recent article for Slate, Hitchens, although acknowledging Britain's history of violence, does not concede to the notion that the riots are not surprising because they are not new. What is new about the riots is "the emergence of gangs and even small-scale 'communities' that feel they owe no civic or political or in many cases religious loyalty to the state or its institutions."

The press in England itself has also postulated a number of differing causes; unsurprisingly, these speculations are usually based along political lines.

The conservative Daily Telegraph has listed everything from an ineffective police force, welfare, to multiculturalism as culprits. Meanwhile the left-leaning Guardian correlates poverty and unemployment as factors.

The various finger-pointing and blame dropping lies in the nature of how the 2011 England riots came to fruition: after the fatal shooting of 29-year old Mark Duggan by London authorities, protesters initially began a peaceful demonstration and demanded to know the circumstances of Duggan's death. Almost immediately afterward, violence erupted in various parts of the city and then spread to other major cities including Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool and even smaller provinces. The sudden and literally, explosive nature of the riots made it clear that the shooting of a young man was not a major factor in the cause of the chaos.  

Adding to the bewilderment of the cause of the upheaval is that none of the rioters were protesting any political or social cause. No one held signs or placards, but instead looted, robbed, committed arson, and outright murdered people. The only spirit uniting the rioters seems to be criminal opportunism and "boredom." New details are emerging about the riots almost every day; most recently, police revealed that there have been several armed attacks against authorities. Two men were even sentenced to four years imprisonment for using Facebook to incite criminal activity.

Scientists and psychologists have also offered their own interpretation of the riots: in an article for Discovery News, Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern, says that riots consist of two phases. The first is known as de-individuation, in which a person sheds their personal sense and hence, their responsibility and adapts to a specific group behavior. The second phase occurs when newcomers join the group and are pressured to conform to that group's actions.

Like commenters before him, Levin believes that harsh economic times may have factored in the rioting. "They don't see the light at the end of the economic tunnel...[and] may take advantage of a dire situation in order to accumulate certain items--such as flat screen TVs--that they otherwise might not," he said.

Needless to say, there are many competing theories and arguments as to what sparked the riots. Everything from a lack of family values to new technology, such as Twitter and Blackberry, have been cited as a reason for the mayhem.  Whatever the ultimate causes that may be determined, so far the riots in England have proved to be a launching pad for commentators to espouse their own version of the truth.



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