August 11, 2011

To a watching world, the sight of Britain on fire this week has surely been shocking. The looting and torching has revealed an inner-city London, Birmingham and Manchester seldom glimpsed in the England usually offered for export via soft-focus period dramas, Hugh Grant movies or stories on Will and Kate.

If the revelation has puzzled outsiders, it has confused Britons no less. The mood here is a mixture of rage, fear and bafflement. Not that we’re not used to riots: We are. England caught fire during that other royal-wedding year, 1981. But 30 years ago, the battle lines were relatively clear. Race was central, especially in the predominantly black south London neighborhood of Brixton. The target then was a police force charged with racial bias. But the recent explosions have had none of that clarity.

Even though the troubles ignited last week after the police killing of a black Briton in the north London area of Tottenham, the copycat outbursts since have lacked that racial dimension. Among the looters, all races have been represented, while their targets have not been overtly political. They have not hurled stones at police stations, city halls or the Houses of Parliament. Instead, these rapidly mobilized crowds have concentrated their fire on stores, especially those selling cellphones, sneakers and large-screen TVs. One looter was seen trying on different pairs of shoes, making sure she stole the right size.

The Guardian’s Zoe Williams has called these the “shopping riots,” noting the way the mobs move from malls to main-street stores, avoiding confrontation with the police, in contrast with the 1981 rioters, who actively sought it. If today’s looters have a political point to make, it is that politics doesn’t matter.

I walked the length of Tottenham’s High Road on Wednesday, as demolition crews removed what was left of the large carpet store burned to ash on Saturday. I listened to Mohammed Abdi, a Somali-born cellphone store owner whose life’s work was destroyed that night. “It took an age to build this business — and now I have nothing,” he told me. The local member of Parliament, David Lammy, was doing his best to hug and reassure those whose neighborhood was ravaged. “The consumerist and materialist nature of it is new,” he said. “And it’s of this generation.”

The methods are new, too: using instant-messaging technology to assemble a crowd; diverting police to one place by, say, burning a car; and then, once law enforcement is safely distracted, starting looting in another. The fact that police officers cannot be everywhere at once has proved their Achilles heel, making them all but powerless. The short-term remedy has been to triple the number of police on duty in London, which restored calm here Tuesday night but which is no more a long-term solution than the pleas for BlackBerry to turn off its instant-messenger system. One Tottenham resident warned Wednesday that the rest of the world should brace for the spread of this new “social criminality.”

For the moment, the focus is on stopping the looters. Prime Minister David Cameron, who said Wednesday that he is ready to use water cannons and rubber bullets, is keenly aware that a government’s first duty is to secure the realm. His press critics have warned that if he didn’t get things under control, this could be his Hurricane Katrina. Equally under pressure is London Mayor Boris Johnson, who must be mindful that in just one year the city is due to host the Summer Olympics. Many Londoners are hoping that the image that will linger in the world’s memory is that of volunteers wielding brooms, determined to clean up their city.

Amid the destruction and debris, one question is ultra-sensitive: Why? Those who seek to understand the looters’ motivation have been instantly accused of justifying their actions — as if to explain is always to excuse. Some have nevertheless dared to offer reasons, with poverty an early and obvious explanation — though that view looked less credible once details about some of the suspected rioters emerged. Among those in court have been university graduates, an army recruit and a youth worker. Such people might be a minority among the looters, but they hardly fit the conventional definition of the “underclass.”

Others have said the source of the malaise is a greed-is-good consumerism, with the looters following a take-what-you-can lead set by the bonus-earning bankers at the top end of the income scale. Still others have preferred to concentrate on family breakdown and fatherlessness, suspecting that many of those involved are, if not poor, then emotionally deprived and utterly disconnected from the wider society. Lammy has been struck by those looters caught on film who don’t bother to hide their faces: “They have so little, they don’t care.”

Most controversial is the suggestion that the riots might have even a tenuous link to the government’s austerity program, aimed at reducing the deficit. Funding for youth services — clubs and outreach workers — in the Tottenham area has just been cut by 75 percent. Those schemes used to keep some of the toughest kids off the streets, but no longer.

It’s too early to know whether spending cuts played any part in England’s burning. But as the United States embarks on its own retrenchment, it should beware — this is an argument that could soon be coming your way.

Jonathan Freedland is an editorial page columnist for the Guardian. Follow him on Twitter at @j_freedland.