I started carrying a knife aged 12…when I’ve got this [samurai sword] with me I feel safe, scare tactics init – the bigger [the knife] the better…No one breaks the cycle round here – the cycle never breaks.
A teenager in Liverpool made these statements to the BBC. ‘The cycle’ is an ugly pattern of petty disputes, escalation, violence and revenge, a brutal cycle that is destroying the lives of thousands of young people in Britain.
There is something fundamentally wrong with a society when children feel they have to carry deadly weapons in order to protect themselves.
In the year ending March 2018, according to Government figures, there were 40,100 “offences involving a knife or sharp object” in England and Wales, including 285 deaths – a record number. London has seen the highest levels of knife crime in the country; there were 14,700 attacks and half of all homicides by knife took place in the capital.
Such shocking statistics highlight the crisis, suggest patterns and correlations, but reveal little of the root causes; generalizations are riddled with errors and all too often strategies focus on the effects rather than the impelling causes, which pertain to the psychological environment and the collective atmosphere within which people are living, as well as circumstantial conditions.
Trivial disputes, fatal consequences
Victims and perpetrators of knife crime are overwhelmingly young men under 25, many are children, some as young as 12; they come from disadvantaged, poor backgrounds, with few opportunities and little support; absent Fathers are common and drugs are a factor, selling and using. It is a social issue relating more to class than race, although in London the victims are overwhelmingly black, further muddying the waters for those looking for answers within the sea of statistics.
What makes anyone, let alone a child, carry a knife? What leads him to use it and how can it be stopped?
Fear seems a major factor, fear of being attacked and the need, or perceived need for protection; the danger is if you’re carrying a weapon and you’re confronted, there is a temptation to use it. Awez Khan, 17, the Birmingham representative of the youth parliament, part of the British Youth Council, told The Guardian: “I know a lot of people who carry knives. A lot of it is paranoia and fear for their life…they don’t know when they might die and they have to defend themselves. It’s a kill-or-be-killed situation.” In the past knife crime was often a gang-related issue, but while this persists to a degree, police estimate that now “75% of those caught have no connection to gangs.”
Some attacks are unprovoked random acts of violence, which occasionally lead to death or life changing injuries, lives destroyed, families shattered. In other cases, perhaps the highest percentage, petty arguments escalate and quickly become violent feuds, with neither individual backing down for fear of being seen to be weak, and, whereas in days gone by the result might have been a fist fight, now it can lead to a stabbing. Within this category, “social media plays the biggest part”; insults are posted, taunting, denigrating friends, girlfriends or family members; images of weapons, filmed footage of violence, sometimes as it happens, is shared with friends of the victim; cyber bullying that spills over onto the streets within minutes, leading in some cases to loss of life. “A febrile online atmosphere was among factors responsible for rising knife crime, states Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick in The Times newspaper …“social media sites are driving children to commit violence and murders, within minutes…trivial disputes between young people were escalating into murder and stabbings at unprecedented rates.”
According to the Met Commissioner, many children carrying knives had been excluded from school, and “are people who have suffered some kind of adverse experience of a significant sort when they are young, and/or have limited or problematic family lives and parenting – all things that can lead to other negative outcomes, not just serious violence.” The lack of a positive male role model was a consistent factor; many young men, she said, were simply “looking to be loved”.
The risk of a custodial sentence (average four years) is not a deterrent; the majority don’t get caught and as 15 year old Dontae, from south-east London related to the BBC, “people are not scared of jail, [they] would rather risk it than actually get hurt by the weapon itself.” The police are viewed with suspicion or outright hostility and it’s rare that someone will share information relating to an attack with the police: they don’t trust the authorities, don’t want to be seen as a snitch and have no faith in the judicial system. Justice is seen as payback: “My justice is revenge,” a balaclava wearing teenager in south-east London told Channel 4 documentary, On a Knifes’ Edge. Anger, hate, retribution is the pattern of the streets, and underlying this madness is fear and mistrust.
Stop and Search tactics are used by the Police to take knives off the streets; figures suggest this approach can be effective, but most weapons go undetected and there are not enough police on the streets. Under the government’s austerity program, which is a cruel ideological attack on the poor, police budgets have been cut by 20% since 2010, resulting in the loss of around 21,000 officers. Adult and child social care has also been dramatically reduced, benefits have been effected and according to the Department of Education spending on youth services, clubs, community centers after-school facilities etc. has been slashed by a third since 2016. Such savage cuts inevitably have the biggest impact on the most disadvantaged families: it is not by chance that increases in knife crime have coincided with the reduction in services.
‘When there is fear there is no love’
Violence of all kinds is a social problem – a ‘public health’ issue, not simply a criminal activity; it demands early intervention, identifying children who are potentially at risk of falling into crime and providing them with the support they need to ensure they don’t go down a destructive path, and a unified ‘joined-up’ approach with all services cooperating.
This entails sensitive understanding of a person’s life, his/her home environment, mental health, community and education as well as drug/alcohol use/dependency. “We are all committed to the notion that prevention is better than enforcement,” says Commissioner Dick, “which is, after all, the public health approach.” For such an approach to succeed though, it needs investment, not reductions, in social services, education, housing and health care.
A holistic methodology is essential if knife crime in Britain, like violent crime everywhere, is to be reduced and stopped, but if we are to create lasting harmony within society, nationally and globally, underlying causes and the interconnected nature of life need to be better understood.
Violence is the external expression of internal conflict; the key therefore to establishing peace within our world lies in identifying and removing the factors that feed discord – the psychological/sociological conditioning, false values and divisive ideologies.
Harmony within society rests upon there being a degree of inner contentment within those that make up any given community; ‘peace of mind’, according to the Dalai Lama “comes from warm heartedness, this reduces ill-feeling towards others, and reduces distrust.” ‘Warm heartedness’ is a feeling of affection towards others; like cooperation and tolerance, it is a natural part of our shared humanity and spontaneously arises when we move away from self-centered thinking and concern ourselves with the needs of others. When you “help others you get happiness, inner strength and purpose of life.”
Within the construct of contemporary society there are a variety of elements that work against our innate inclinations for the good, and serve to aggravate adverse tendencies like discontent, greed and fear. There is tremendous social injustice: wealth and income inequality, as well as inequality of opportunity, access to culture and influence. Comparison and competition have infiltrated all areas of society and are major negative factors; as His Holiness says, “society based on competition and material satisfaction cultivates fear, and when there is fear there is no love,” and without love the door is open to all that corrupts and poisons a human being. Perhaps unsurprisingly, love is the key to peace of mind and harmonious living; not sentimental or romantic love, but love as that most vibrant force for good, love expressed as sharing, as tolerance, as cooperation, as friendship; “friendship is essential, with friendship comes trust” and where there is trust community can be built, fear dispelled and peace made manifest.