I'm sure many readers share my own sense of bewilderment, disbelief and anxiety over the violence, looting and disorder which has swept across London in the last seventy-two hours. We are currently staying in Hertfordshire not far from Enfield where violence broke out again last night. Reports from where we live in East Dulwich say that rioters from Peckham, just a mile away, rolled up Lordship Lane last night, smashing windows as they went. In the light of what has happened in Ealing overnight, it looks like ED has gotten away with it very lightly. Who knows what tonight holds, however? The violence seems to be confined to shopping areas where looting and mass muggings can be carried out easily, but who knows what comes next?
Many people are pitching in to try to clear up the mess left by the rioters. The sense of grievance against the trouble makers in the communities where they come from is strong. One video from Hackney showed a black lady with a stick yelling obscenities at the looters who, she said, could have been fighting for a cause, but who prefer instead to attack Footlocker and Ladbrookes looking for shoes and money.
The old left-right divide of social commentary is drawing its lines predictably. The toothless Tory-Lib Dem government is talking about criminality and lawlessness, and promising robust policing in response. Some left-wingers are claiming that the riots are the reaction of a class of socially deprived young men without job prospects. Curiously, the Guardian blogging platform is unusually silent about the events of last night. Some right-wing commentators have seen in these riots the consequences of a weak and liberal education system that has looked on, powerless to control the violent gang culture which exists beneath the surface of many inner-city communities. Others have raised the possiblities of people fleeing the capital or of setting up their own vigilante groups if the police remain overwhelmed by the violence. Strategically, the police have been intermittently effective, but in many places they have been totally outnumbered and thus unable to deal with the crowds of looters. Fr Finigan cannot be the only person who feels that these are the desserts of a morally relativistic culture. A lot of people will be sat at home this morning, scratching their heads and wondering how this could have happened, and what can be done about it.
There are a lot of things one could say about all this, but let me just mention what I see as the most striking aspect of this unrest until now: the almost total absence of ideological justification. I know that the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham by the police was the spark for the unrest, but the events have entirely outstripped Duggan's death. The rioters are not even pretending that they are unhappy about that. They are simply dismantling civil order, robbing shops in which some, perhaps many, of them were customers last weekend, and setting fire to property, homes and cars, with reckless disregard for the life and safety of others.
What we are looking at here is not 'anarchy' in its strict sense. I'm sure it is not even moral relativism, although undoubtedly moral relativism has helped create the atmosphere in which these events have occurred. Neither is it a total breakdown of the social contract, resembling a Hobbesian landscape in which all wage war against all; after all, many people are helping to clear up this morning in what appears to be a resurgence of community feeling across the capital.
So what is going on exactly? The explanations will be necessarily complex - social, cultural and criminal; the consequences will be far reaching, and the fallout is likely to affect London for years to come. More later.