Tuesday, July 26, 2005


My girlfriend is an American who has lived in London the past three years studying for a graduate degree. Several times in her short stay here she has witnessed explosions of what the British press have come to call “yob” culture, the vicious and brutal attacks by young Britons against random strangers on the street. The worst incident she saw occurred on a bus. A young man boarded the bus with some friends, and tried to sneak by without paying. The driver, however, noticed him, and yelled at him to come back to the front of the bus. When he pretended not to hear, a young woman informed him that the bus driver wanted a word with him. The young man proceeded to tear into the woman, screaming at her to mind her own business.

The woman, however, was not the victim of violence. The victim was, instead, a man in his mid-twenties who was sitting nearby with his mother. When the young hoodlum had been screaming at the woman for a good while, the victim finally told him to lay off her. That was enough of a spark to light off the yob mentality. He and his friends grabbed the man, dragged him off the bus, and pummeled him bloody on the sidewalk. My girlfriend, and the rest of the bus passengers, watched through the windows in silence as the man’s mother screamed for help.

This month has witnessed several much worse violent explosions on London buses. Strangers, as innocent as if less valiant than the man on bus, have died for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The perpetrators of these acts were very different, of course. The men who attacked my girlfriend’s bus were white. Those who attacked trains and buses on July 7 and July 21 were, it is believed, not white. The similarities, however, are more important. The men who bombed London’s transportation, and the men who terrorize its streets after closing time at the pubs, are all young British men, who, adrift in this nation, have found personal realization through vicious, indiscriminate, violence.

The Labour government believes that the best way to stop violence such as this is to prohibit it. Yob culture is being attacked with the infamous Anti-Social Behavior Ordinances, which allow local governments to impose severe penalties on specific people for any sort of activity that might be deemed “anti-social”, broadly defined. Terrorism is likewise to be combated with increased police powers, and the occasional public execution on a crowded tube car. Those on the left, of course, insist that what we really need to do is attack the motivations. In the case of the yobs, this means more “opportunity” and better youth programs to keep them occupied in the meantime. In the case of terrorism, this means fighting racism at home and ending Britain’s involvement in the war on Iraq.

As much as I would love to blame terrorism such as London’s on the Iraq war, I just do not think it is justified. The Iraq war provides impetus, to be sure, just as the man on the bus provided his attackers with an impetus, however mild. And surely, the young men from Leeds were organized, trained, and equipped by larger forces. But in reading the biographies of the original bombers, young Muslim men from Leeds, I can’t help have the feeling that even if geopolitics hadn’t intervened, violence and trouble might always have been down the road for them. One of the bombers, after all, had been sent to Pakistan in the first place because his mother hoped a traditional education might keep her son out of trouble. And although I am mostly sympathetic to the argument that poverty and a lack of social opportunity encourages violent youth cultures, I just also know too many privileged rich kids who are as violent as the next. And despite Michael Moore’s simplifications, I don’t think it is a matter of national culture. Nations and political movements give formal shape and coherence to violence, but they don’t actually create it.

I just wish I knew where it did come from. It seems to be everywhere, lying ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Living amongst the bombings this summer makes you realize, first of all, how dreadful it must be to live in areas where much more horrific violence flourishes daily. But it also makes you realize that maybe you might have some of that violence in you too. I have never been a law-and-order person in my life, and six months after the terrorist attacks in New York City I marched in Washington, D.C. against the war in Afghanistan. I never have believed that punitive actions help to stop violence, and I have been against the death penalty as long as I have been alive. And yet, in the midst of these bombings, I occasionally feel these little surges of violence within myself. They aren’t particularly directed at anything coherent. If I were a British police officer, or an American president, it is the kind of surge that would cause great damage. Instead, they just kind of muddle around within me. Am I angry at the terrorists, or the American government, or British hooligans? But most of all, where does it come from?

1 comment:

Adam said...

Interesting. It's nice to have a thoughtful take on the bombings from someone on that shore. I had no idea about this "yob" culture, and the horrible incident which Mary witnessed. But it certainly seems a logical line to draw between that and the bombings.

As for your personal violence, isn't that part of human nature? I feel like we all have these urges to occasionally do terrible, senseless things, but it's our psychology and social ties which prevent it. We all have potential for greatness, both good and bad, within us. But also the means to restrain that greatness, again, both for the better and the worse. When that internal safety net fails, things like videogames get blamed. Really, though, I think it's a failing of our society, and occasionally just dumb luck that someone completely out of control slips by unnoticed.

Society is, certainly, supposed to encourage productive behavior, but legislating it directly is not the way to go. If there's a name for this in British culture, that's a sign that it's a looming problem, methinks. And yet no news stories on the bombings made that connection at all - it was too easy to pin it on the same terrorists as NY.

So, thanks for the info.