As UK reels from riots, is it time to use army?

Aug 9, 2011
Ben Riley-Smith

First reaction: Comparisons with the 1980s are misleading – there are far deeper causes

London has endured a third day of riots and residents of the capital are nervously expecting more to come. With the looting spreading beyond the capital last night, prime minister David Cameron has recalled parliament and announced there will be 16,000 police officers on the streets of London tonight - an almost three-fold increase.

Meanwhile, the media is considering what the real cause of the riots may be - and whether the police alone are capable of stopping the escalating violence.

Riots reflect a youth let down by society. "Watch the juvenile wrecking crews on the city streets and weep for all our futures," the Telegraph's Mary Riddell said. "The 'lost generation' is mustering for war.

"London's riots are not the Tupperware troubles of Greece or Spain, where the middle classes lash out against their day of reckoning. They are the proof that a section of young Britain – the stabbers, shooters, looters, chancers and their frightened acolytes – has fallen off the cliff-edge of a crumbling nation."

Camila Batmanghelidjh, who runs charities which help vulnerable children, wrote in the Independent: "How, we ask, could they attack their own community with such disregard? But the young people would reply 'easily', because they feel they don't actually belong to the community... For years they have experienced themselves cut adrift from civil society's legitimate structures."

Comparisons with the 1980s are misguided. "Comparisons between the violence that began in Tottenham on Saturday and that seen in the North London area in the 1980s are understandable, but also misguided and offensive," the Times main leader said. "London today is not seeing a community at war with the police. It is seeing young people — mainly male, mainly teenage - indulging in looting and arson."

The Guardian's editorial agreed that the similarities should not be overstated. "Thirty years ago, London's police had provided repeated provocation for concern and anger. Much policing of that era was too aggressive, too high-handed, based on crude and often racist stereotypes." This, the paper said, was no longer the case. Indeed, as the Times noted, "Today's rioters appear both cynically aware of police wariness and adept at exploiting it."

Twitter can help police. While social media may have helped some rioters, the Daily Mail's Harry Phibbs argues, "Twitter may also help catch the culprits. Those whose Twitter accounts incited violence can be traced. Others [have] photographs of rioters and looters - this could prove crucial evidence. As could that of press photographs and TV news film."

"After all," he continued, "if the media, including the 'social media', hadn't caught evidence of the culprits then who would? The absence of the police while the shops were ransacked over a period of hours was a scandal. Local people tweeting their observations is a source of information for the police and an opportunity for the rest of us to hold the police to account."

Bring in the army. "The police have no tools for riot control," Tim Montgomerie wrote on the Tory blog ConservativeHome. "They don't need water cannon - it won't work on such mobile crowds - but they do need rubber bullets and tear gas. A rubber bullet feels like you've been hit by a sledge hammer. That's what some of these thugs need and the army is trained to deliver it."

The Spectator's Peter Hoskin appeared to agree: "Alongside a curfew, the more extreme option is, of course, to use the Army in a supporting role. Although that would break through all sorts of symbolic barriers — soldiers on the streets, in under a week — it might also give the Met the bulk and mobility they need."

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