IN 1958, the owner of a carpet shop in Middlesbrough was stabbed to death. Even though I was only 10 at the time, I remember it well because things like that never happened.
Sixty years later, London has just had its 47th killing in just the first three months of the year – exceeding New York’s murder rate for the first time ever – and figures for last year showed that a total of 723 people in the UK were the victims of homicides.
We constantly hear concern and outrage expressed at the increasing levels of knife and firearm attacks which continue unabated despite amnesty after amnesty in which people are asked to hand in knives, swords, axes and guns to the police, no questions asked.
Maybe it reduces the potential for violent attacks, but it clearly isn’t stopping them. This latest loss of life, this time to a shooting, involved a 17-year-old girl accidentally caught in the crossfire of a gun war between rival gangs, and if the situation of guns in our own country isn’t enough of a cause for concern, we only have to look at the situation of gun violence in America to know that’s one cultural import we certainly can do without.
What is happening to our society? Many claim we need more police on our streets, and while the list of reasons why might well be topped by crimes of violence, it would be a long list. My degree studies were in psychology but I am certainly not a criminal psychologist; however, I have a couple of pet theories.
The first has to do with the general lack of discipline, and in particular self-discipline, that is rampant in our society. We now have at least two generations of people who have grown up never being taught the consequences of their actions. They have never heard the word “no” and they have never been disciplined or punished for disregarding the word of the law.
Instead experience has taught them that they can do and say whatever they want, to whoever they want, wherever and whenever they want and get away with it – and so they do.
In too many cases this has extended to carrying out acts of physical violence against others – again regardless of the consequences even when it involves threatening, or actually taking, another person’s life. They act without any consideration of the consequences because in their experience there have never been consequences. It’s all about me, myself, and I.
My other theory comes from seeing the advertisements on television for video games. The gaming content of so many of them seems to be nothing else but violence and fighting and in particular shooting – killing and destroying other people before they kill or destroy you. You kill to win.
Any argument that people are better off acting out their violence in a game than on the streets is specious at best given the levels of violent crime being committed. What may in fact be happening is that those who play these games grow up learning, yet again, that there are no consequences for their actions. In the gaming world they kill and shoot and destroy, but there is no actual body count; the villains bounce back to be shot and killed over and over again.
But then they don’t make the mental transition to the real world when they are out on the streets. It becomes far too easy to pull out a knife in self-defence, or worse still in an act of deliberate aggression, and to use it without considering the consequences. In the real world that other person isn’t going to bounce back, and they don’t, but by then it’s too late.
During the Cold War (and it may be with us once again), each side had a terrifying range of weapons that could have wiped the human race off the face of the earth and the theory was that no one would dare use them because of the consequences and so peace was maintained.
That’s also the theory on the streets – that if everyone knows I am carrying a weapon then no one will attack me.
The 47th killing in London in three months seems to prove otherwise.
Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.