In a week where the "big news" has been about America's Financial Meltdown, I said to my mother that the real story, to me anyway, that was being overlooked was London. That ended the next day, when violence in London exploded into a much larger problem of riots and looting than anyone expected. It only took a day for worrying about the stock market to seem quaint.
To my "connect the dots" mind, the story of the London riots - which still seem somewhat wildly surreal to me - will turn out, I suspect, to be the endgame of the story about phone hacking... which in turn, as we are seeing, is less a story about the press and more a story about London's Metropolitan Police Force.
Stay with me on this for a minute: the real scandal in the phone hacking story - which, one might recall, has led to the resignations of its top leaders just as rioting broke out - is the complicity of police forces in both the hacking and the failure to stop it or investigate it fully. That story, really, is the tip of an iceberg which the rioting, and the failure to police that effectively as well, becomes just another example of how flawed London's policing really is.
It's easy to fall into a familiar left/right argument about the riots - are we worried about root causes, or lawlessness? - but our American biases are really beside the point; the British have a problem that is both about root causes (poverty, injustice, and a sense of powerlessness) and violence and law breaking on a severe scale that a developed society simply cannot tolerate.
And all of those problems, really, have everything to do with an ineffective, poorly deployed police force.
One of the things that's rarely mentioned when discussing the English (and, in this case, really them and really not us) is just how much of British society is still a deeply entrenched system of class distinctions that are quietly accepted and at times brutally enforced. We Americans are only barely exposed to the issues of "Council Housing", the bifurcated system of education which puts the elites into those tony boarding schools we hear so much about, but shunts the poor and working classes into schools of lesser quality. The list of ills for the poor and working classes in London goes on and on... we quaintly talk of "Dickensian", but we forget that what Charles Dickens described in the interactions of British people between classes is that some of those perceptions never really changed. The upper class is still separated and superior, and still insulated from the suffering of the masses, suffering that, when it comes to the police, is done, in no small part, to perpetuate the insulation.
London's riots, in fact, are now news - much the way the Rodney King riots in LA became national news - mostly because it's clear, at this late moment, that no one is particularly safe. Your education, wealth, class, and privilege will not protect you when lawlessness reigns. Therefore, some will conclude... we can't have lawlessness.
We can't have lawlessness. And we cannot condone violence. But while Thoughtful People wring their hands over quelling the riots, bringing some sense of order (and justice) back into play... it would be a worthwhile moment if London's elites also took a hard look at the role of the class divisions in their society as a catalyst for revolt. Improving housing, education, opportunities for work and advancement will be crucial to improving a society bacl to a place where violence isn't just condemned, but where it also seems unnecessary.
In the midst of panic, it's easy to condemn the violence, the looters, the breakdown of civility and order. But the point is, really, that these riots are not, however it seems from a distance, events that came out of the blue. It's why we expect more of police than simply beating back protesters and throwing people in jail. Britain has a choice - are the police merely the enforcers of an established social order, or are they an instrument of helping to establish fairness and a sense of justice for all? Order and a sense of calm, however uneasy, will eventually be restored... but until when? Until the next riot? Or until people believe that, whatever class they come from, all of them have a chance for a decent, positive quality of life?