Riot and wrong

Dramatic examples of lawlessness, such as the recent London riots, make everyone feel uneasy.

It is overblown to say that the nights of criminality have amounted to insurrection, but for the people living on the affected streets – the owners of the cars, the keepers of the shops, the civilians looking despairingly on at the wholesale destruction of their environment – the riots will have unsettled their sense that they can rely on calm, dreary, day-to-day safety and the rule of law.

Among the scenes of destruction I am reminded of William Golding’s novel about lawlessness, Lord Of The Flies, in which a group of boys slowly descend into savagery without an authority above them:

“Roger gathered a handful of stones and began to throw them. Yet there was a space round Henry, perhaps six yards in diameter, into which he dare not throw. Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law. Roger’s arm was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins.”

There is something both banal and horrifying about the sight of a furniture warehouse set deliberately ablaze. The reality of crime is nothing new: the newspapers routinely remind us in graphic detail of the depravity that can result from a certain mix of environment and character, and we have become almost inoculated against shock by the portrayal of violence, both real and imagined, in these days of 24-hour media.

What is not so familiar is the nagging concern that we are on the verge of being overwhelmed by these incidents; that our police forces and political leaders are standing on the shore of a mysterious sea of masked criminals to whom such taboos are alien. In the calls for curfews, water cannon and soldiers on the streets, there is a tone approaching panic.

When the reports are written, I am willing to bet that one conclusion on the escalation of these crimes over the days they have persisted will be the erosion of the strength of the law in the eyes of those involved. A lack of fear contributed to the repetition, growth, and geographical spread of these crimes. Whether you believe that laws are handed down backed by what is effectively the threat of  state power, or that they are rules around which we have formed a consensus, the wide-scale breaching of laws approaches an existential challenge.

I have heard people publicly express enthusiasm for joining in the rioting, as if it were a party. Their fearlessness stems from a simple, awful logic – the less adherence there is to the law, the weaker the law becomes in practice.

The illegal downloading of pirated content is the starkest example of this phenomenon. If you are one of 10,000 people seeding and leeching Harry Potter across the internet your risk of sanction is minimal, and the notion of the law is embarrassed. If all over London people are looting shops, the risk to you in looting a shop seems diminished. The more rioters, the more stretched the police. The more crimes, the more stretched the prosecuting authority. There must come a tipping point at which the connection between the actions of these people and the sanctions society applies fails under the pressure. We are not near this point yet, but you don’t have to go far to see and hear examples of panic. We should all be reminded by these riots that without power, organization and authority the law is merely a taboo.

Rupert Myers is a barrister at East Anglian Chambers