The first thing we have to do is decide what to call the events of the past few days. Disturbances? Riots? Orgy of looting?
My preferred description, I think – not entirely seriously – was offered by one of our contributors last night: “shopping with violence”. But not “protests”, because with the exception of the original protest in Tottenham last Saturday, after the shooting dead by police of Mark Duggan, there hasn’t been much sign of anyone out on the streets protesting overtly about anything.
So what were they doing, apart from the obvious? Like me, you’ve probably heard dozens of explanations, and I’m sure you have plenty of your own.
Last Tuesday, on The World Tonight blog, I asked a series of questions. Among them:
Is it a mistake to look for reasons why? Is the answer simply that what we've seen has been gangs of hooligans and criminals doing what hooligans and criminals always do?
Can we learn something by analysing the targets the rioters chose to attack? Electronic goods shops, sports goods shops, jewellers? All of which could be seen as "status" goods stockists?
Is the violence related in part to feelings of power and powerlessness? When an American TV reporter asked one young rioter what he thought the violence achieved, he is said to have been told: "You wouldn't have been talking to me without it, would you?"
Is inadequate parenting in part to blame? How many young rioters come from stable, loving, two-parent homes?
After several months of reports of alleged law-breaking by politicians, police and press, have some youths now decided that taking what you’re not entitled to is something they can try as well?
Has gang culture become so engrained in some communities that obeying gang rules (follow orders, look strong, be brave, own the streets) is more important than obeying society's rules?
Why were the police apparently so slow to react when the violence spread from Tottenham on Saturday night? Are they under-staffed, under-resourced, or too demoralised by talk of deep cuts in police numbers?
We journalists have an annoying habit of asking sometimes: “Was it X or was it Y?” In this case, “Was it a reaction to prolonged economic stagnation and high levels of youth unemployment, or an anarchic outburst of greed and criminality, born from a culture of amorality in which there is no understanding or recognition of what is right and wrong?”
Perhaps the most useful answer is: All of the above – because as I listened to some of the young looters who’ve been interviewed this week, I was struck by how varied their responses have been.
“It was a bit of fun ... I wanted to get back at the police ... I wanted to show rich people we can do what we want ... It was a chance to get something I wanted without paying for it.”
I was also struck by something the pyschotherapist Nancy Secchi said on the programme on Tuesday: that in some cases, the looters behaved like toddlers, throwing a tantrum, smashing their toys, destroying the nursery. All with no thought whatsoever for the consequences, because they’ve never learned to consider consequences.
But of course there are consequences. As of last night, more than 1,000 people had been arrested. Some have already been processed through the courts and sent to jail. Yesterday, a 23-year-student was sentenced to six months in prison for stealing bottles of mineral water worth £3.50.
Over the coming days, we’ll learn much more about who the looters were – or at least we’ll learn more about those who were caught. So far, it seems they come from a wide spread of ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds.
And in a few months from now, what will we think as we look back? A terrifying warning of a society in deep trouble – or a moment, a spasm, of mid-summer madness, what Macbeth would have called “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing"?