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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

At The Edge

On Britain’s strange fascination with knife crime.

I’m gonna get drunk

Come round and fuck you up

I’m gonna get drunk

Come round and fuck you up

And you can’t help my life

But you can hide the knives
—lyrics to “Knives,” by Therapy?

The more ice-cream is sold, the higher the murder rate climbs. You might have heard this fact before: It’s often used in statistics classes to try and prod students into thinking critically. There is a positive correlation between the two variables, yet it would be silly to conclude that ice-cream causes murders. Correlation is not the same thing as causation—sometimes, a third variable connects the most visible dots. In this case, it is hot weather. This fact has been borne out in multiple studies, from various times and places all across the world: Violence, in particular, rises and falls with the temperature. The crime rate is worst in the summer and will even spike suddenly in warm periods of winter.

Opportunity seems to offer a partial explanation for this phenomenon. Hotter weather means people are outside more and interacting with each more, which brings on more conflict. The lure of spending a sunny weekend between pubs and parks might encourage more excessive drinking, leading to worse decision-making. It is also possible that heat affects our quickness to moodiness and anger. Some have suggested that summer literally opens the door to opportunistic theft—as the heat rises, people start keeping their windows open, or leaving their homes empty while on vacation. But the evidence suggests more than opportunity is responsible for subversiveness. Revolutions and riots, too, tend to happen overwhelmingly in summer. The French Revolution boiled over between May and August of 1789. The Haitian Revolution, August 1791. Stonewall riots, June 1969. This is when things are supposed to happen. 

It was the summer of 2007, and something was about to happen.

Over the course of that summer, there was a cluster of fatal stabbings in London, the victims mainly young men of color. These young men would previously have been of no interest to anyone in power, but on TV every day. For weeks on end, pundits agonized over the crisis on discussion shows and in newspapers. (I distinctly remember a Photoshop mockup of a BBC News 24 screenshot, made by someone I vaguely knew online, featuring an interview with a talking knife. The ribbon scrolling across the bottom said “Knife knife knife? Knife!”) Politicians gave Very Concerned Speeches, and in response to the pressure, the police began conducting an unusually high number of stops and carrying out searches on the streets, trying to hunt down any object with sharp edges. Yet looking at the statistics, the rampant obsession with this particular form of violence seemed absurd. This supposed sudden epidemic was neither sudden, nor an epidemic.

The U.K., and London in particular, has a reputation as a cesspool of violence. Gun crime is rare in our little kingdom, yet jokes and rumors abound on our fondness for brawling, stabbing, and “glassing” (the act of attacking someone with a broken bottle or pint glass). Still, if you turn away from the lurid stories in the newspapers, the U.K.’s crime problem is less dire than is often claimed. The violent crime rates are generally much lower in the U.K. than in the United States. London’s homicide rate over the last couple of decades has generally hovered between one and two murders per 100,000 people—that’s about half of New York City’s rate, and far below most major American cities.  Mass killings are rare, not least because it’s quite tricky to kill multiple people with a short-range weapon. And, like the U.S. and the rest of the West, the crime rate has been trending down since the mid-1990s, regardless of the occasional small spikes and dips. Yet every now and then we are visited by panics, radios blaring, and headlines screaming at us that we are a nation besieged by knife-wielding maniacs. What was it about the summer of 2007 that made us obsessed with knives?

The U.K. in the mid-2000s was, above all else, really fucking boring. Of course there’s always war, and horror, and poverty, but if you were fortunate enough not to be directly involved in any of those things, summer 2007, like the rest of the mid-2000s, was an empty space, an era plagued by an oppressive mundanity. There were news stories—you have to put something in the news, after all—but they all felt either repetitive or manufactured, almost as if new events had stopped altogether. In June, Tony Blair had finally resigned, his reputation in shreds after the Iraq invasion, and been replaced by his longtime rival Gordon Brown, a man mostly remembered for being extraordinarily dull. Then in July, there was a big controversy over a BBC documentary about the Queen, which had been apparently been edited to make her look moodier than she really was. (The controversy was exactly as stupid and meaningless as it sounds). There was talk of the new government announcing an election, but that ended up coming to nothing. 

Every week there were four new identical guitar bands being pushed on the radio, all working in a style so forgettable that it gained the nickname “landfill indie.” It was a big year for old-school light entertainment shows, including the inaugural season of Britain’s Got Talent. Among the finalists were a mildly talented pop-opera singer, a man with a monkey puppet, and a pair of flair bartenders both called Neil. The biggest comedy shows on TV were Little Britain and The Catherine Tate Show, two sketch shows in the same mould, in which the actors would play out slight variations on the same sketches each week, usually ending with the characters repeating a hilarious catchphrase (the catchphrases would become progressively less hilarious each time you heard them repeated in the playground or at the office, until around about the 60th or 70th time, at which point you would consider perforating your own eardrums with a pencil dipped in drain cleaner). By coincidence—or perhaps as a testament to the poisonous nature of Britain’s class snobbery—both shows had a popular character who was a “chavvy” (low-class) teenage girl, making fun of girls who dared to be talkative and opinionated even though they didn’t speak like Dame Judi Dench. In March 2007, Catherine Tate did a one-off sketch as her teen girl character, Lauren Cooper, for a charity telethon. In this very special mini-episode, Lauren, who usually dismisses her interlocutors with her catchphrase “Am I bovvered?” [translation for non-Brits: “Do I look like I give a shit?”], finds herself face to face with Prime Minister Tony Blair, in the dying months of his premiership; she tries to tell him some gossip, but in a knee-slapping reversal of fortune, Blair tells her “Am I bovvered?”, thus finally rendering her speechless.

In short, 2007 was a cultural vacuum. 

Everything felt like a repetition of the same petty controversies, whether it was political dirt or celebrity scandal. Culture was dead. Nothing of importance was happening that the media wanted to talk about. So they went to Plan B, and that summer, they talked about knife crime.

One night in March 2019, I turned on the TV without having anything specific to watch and settled on BBC Two. I hadn’t done this in quite a while; I was at a relative’s house and trying to get away from my computer for a couple of hours, but there was little to do in the neighborhood, and the best way for me to take a break from my screen was simply to look at a different type of screen in a different room for a while. Newsnight, the channel’s flagship current affairs program, was on. The topic of the evening: our national blight of knife crime. Instantly, I felt a flash of deja vu back to 2007. After lurking at the back of the media’s closet for the past few years, like a toy gathering dust—present always in our jokes, and our angry suburban uncles’ rants about how society was going to the dogs, but not so much to the fore of our concerns—knife crime was once again at the center of a moral panic. 

I was baffled. Did we have nothing else to talk about? The economy? Jeremy Corbyn? Syria? The refugee boats? Weren’t we mere weeks away from the Brexit deadline? Hadn’t we been warned that with no Brexit plan on the table, essential medicines might run short, trade might stall, war might start in Northern Ireland? Compared to the endless cycle of crises of the late 2010s, knife crime seemed almost parochial. Over the next few days I saw the subject floating around on Twitter and news websites, a strange interloper among the apocalyptic Brexit chat, a cuckoo’s egg in the nest. Out of curiosity, I checked the crime statistics, to see if there really was some sudden new crimewave. What I found was that knife-related deaths were up slightly from the previous year, but in the context of the longer trends, it was nothing special—fluctuations in the statistics are to be expected. So why were we being asked to pay attention to it now? 

The activist, writer, and rapper Akala has spoken at length about the reality of knife crime. In his view, it is a genuine problem for young men in London, but the sensationalism and racist assumptions that dog the media industry taint discussions of the issue. As Akala has pointed out, over and over again, the relatively small number of murders in the inner-cities are always framed as an indictment of entire cultures—especially young black men’s culture—rather than a symptom of the alienation that always follows economic inequality, regardless of its victims’ ethnicity and locations. He asks us to pay attention to the context: Despair is rampant in the United Kingdom, yet only rarely does it manifest as deadly violence. The U.K. has always had places like the ones Akala describes: communities bereft by funding cuts and political neglect, hubs of debt and poverty that pull people into grim and vicious circles. Most of the time, the media seemed to care little about these alienated communities.

To address the root causes of the issue would require frank and uncomfortable debates about policy, ranging from British education and local spending, to the nation’s public health and the criminal justice systems, and the plethora of ways in which people suffer in this country. For every headline-grabbing pool of blood, thousands of people neither kill nor die violently. Simply and without fanfare, they continue to live difficult lives in cruel circumstances, for reasons the media will generally never bother investigating. Fixing the knifings would require coming to grips with what both Labour and Conservative governments have done to Great Britain, but of course, fixing things was never really a goal of the knife crime discourse. Instead, the knife crimes are a fallback discussion—a filler to avoid more painful or dull topics. 

In August 2007, the knife crime stories started melting away from the headlines—not just because the summer was drawing to a close, but because the news media had started to notice that something else was going on. A few major investment banks outside the U.K., notably Bear Stearns in the U.S. and BNP Paribas in France, were in trouble due to issues around subprime mortgage lending. Shortly afterwards, one of the U.K.’s biggest banks, Northern Rock, ran into the same trouble. In September, panicking customers who were saving with Northern Rock caused Britain’s first bank run in 150 years. The media dropped the Knife Crime Crisis in the rush to cover financial news—one day it was everywhere, the next day it was gone. Talking about those dead young men was for the times when nothing was happening. Now, finally, something was happening, so they could be forgotten again.

The full brunt of the financial crisis was not felt by most of the public for a couple of years—by the end of 2007, there was still little change in either the unemployment figures or the mortgage default rates—but the shockwaves were beginning to pass through the country, building slowly as the decade came to a close. The cultural sterility of the mid-2000s gradually gave way to resentment, anger, despair, and chaos as the economic crash wrecked the lives of countless Brits. Normal was over. 

Even after the financial crisis ceased to be news, and became instead a drab and murky constant in our everyday lives, 2008 marked the beginning era when there was always something going on. In 2009, we learned that almost every British Member of Parliament—save for one Jeremy Corbyn and a handful of others—had been abusing parliamentary expenses, living lavish lifestyles while taxpayers footed the bill. Then, in 2010, the country elected its first Conservative government in 14 years, who immediately implemented a brutal austerity program. They were aided in this by the Liberal Democrats, a smaller and previously quite well-liked party, who cheerfully betrayed their campaign promises, most notably the pledge to never raise university tuition fees. In 2011, police officers shot and killed a man in North London under suspicious circumstances, leading to an outbreak of riots, and the list goes on—outrage after outrage after outrage. Since the financial crisis, it’s felt as if we are trapped in a rapid cycle of elections and accusations and protests and radicalism and violence. And then, of course, there’s Brexit: the precipice we were running towards for years, before reaching it, standing at the edge and staring down paralyzed by the uncertainty of how we got ever here and where to go next. 

When I turned on the TV in March 2019 and saw that the Knife Crime Crisis was back, at first I was confused. But now, I think I understand. This recurring panic has nothing to do with the actual people it affects, people that we never really cared about in the first place. Instead, it acts as a fallback, a callback, a throwback. It allows us to talk endlessly about—but never to—invisible people whose humanity is theoretical for so much of our society. It lets us hyper-focus on Britain’s most ground down communities, all the while ignoring their own voices and activism efforts. It allows us to express concern and demand that something must be done without ever really breaking the surface of what exactly that something might be. Ironically, it’s safe—not for its victims, but for the viewers. And who wouldn’t want to feel safe, now that we’re teetering on the precipice, and don’t even know if our country will have trade or medicine or peace on the streets in six months? 

We’re on the edge, and we know it. The temperatures are rising, and something’s about to happen. You can tell because we’re turning to our old nostalgic stories, our perennial comfort food. We can’t get enough, and we keep hungering for more slices.


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