The August 2011 UK riots

The first observation about the riots is that they’re a failure of government. Any government whose people revolt has failed in some way. It hasn’t failed totally or everywhere but it is responsible for a failure – a significant one in this case. The first thing that Cameron has to do is bow down to Britain and admit failure. That’s true from any political perspective. Whether you’re a fluffy nurturing liberal or a tough personal responsibility conservative, Cameron’s government has failed to govern effectively.

Calling the looters criminals is self-serving hypocrisy to avoid admitting failure. All kinds of people commit crimes, but the category “criminal” is rarely helpful for the purpose of explanation. A “criminal” is someone who has freedom of choice and chooses to do something harmful for self-serving reasons. Say Bernie Maddoff, he was a “criminal”. A madman, terrorist, or rioter cannot be explained away as a “criminal”. You may wish to treat them harshly, but you have to ask further questions if you want to explain their behaviour. You should ask these questions so that you can reach and stop other people who may be on the same path. We don’t analyse “criminals” because we’ve accepted that greed, materialism, and selfishness are normal – we just expect people to control them. We do analyse abusers, extremists, and rioters because there may be something useful society could do to change their motives.

To dismiss rioters as “criminals” is to assume that their motivation has been to acquire trainers or PlayStations without paying, and that there has been a remarkably unlikely concentration of these “criminals” in poor UK suburbs over a particular week. Or else it is to assume that the anger, or whatever, they were feeling is normal, that it’s normal they would want to burn stores and break things, but they should just control themselves like normal people. These are not helpful explanations, so let’s please not call them criminals.

So, after admitting and apologising for failure, Cameron needs to start failing less. Then the question opens, what kind of failure was this?

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