The riots in various cities of the UK during the last weeks are not easy to comment intelligently upon and, frankly, I have some sympathy for the panicky way that the UK government and police is responding. It has to be admitted that this came "from nowhere" (which is not to say that there aren't explanations, I'm talking about predictability here). And riots are exactly that: chaotic outbursts of collective and unsystematic violence where the worsts sides of human beings come to the surface; order, moderation, common sense and logic is simply not to be expected - on either side. However, society and the state bears a responsibility which the uncoordinated collective of rioters does not: It is one, organised institutional agent, committed to uphold certain basic standards and values. Among these are, of course, public order and peace, legal security, justice for victims of crime and – in the wider frame – a society where people are generally content to live (and thus not very prone to rioting). These are elementary building blocks of any well-functioning society that everyone should be able to agree on, whatever other political or ideological leanings you might entertain.
But the response of the UK government, in particular as expressed publicly by prime minister David Cameron these last few days are in this respect quite worrying. Rather than finding inspiration in the long and strong tradition of English liberal democracy, Cameron seems to turn to surprising sources for inspiration.
First, we have the notion of restricting access to internet and wireless communication – especially social media (here, here, here, here) for a rather ill-defined collective of people (those suspected of plotting riot activities). While not amounting to closing down mobile phone networks or the internet á la Syria or North Korea, it does come close to the thrawling of internet and wireless traffic in the hunt for potential dissidents and the barring off of substantial parts of the internet championed by the People's Republic of China. Now, I would not have had much complaint if all that Cameron wanted to do was to have the police use the analysis of mobile phone and internet traffic as a part of preparing arrests and prosecutions. After all, those people who have been causing mayhem during the riots are indeed criminals – and it has to be admitted that the criminal acts they have committed are made more serious due to the context of a riot. But Mr. Cameron obviously wants to go to greater lengths than that, creating a legal loophole (which some legal experts indeed claim is illegal, see the links above) for law enforcement to act proactively against a large mass of people, many of which are perfectly innocent.
Second, yesterday Cameron announced that he wants to see the entire families of (convicted?) rioters who are living in public housing estates to be evicted from their homes (see also here) as part of the punishment of the rioters. Now, here's a novel concept, to say the least, for a political conservative of a Western liberal democracy: collectively punish not only those convicted of crimes, but also their parents, their siblings and their children. This is a sort of tactics that we know from the most draconian of totalitarian societies: Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China and North Korea come to mind. What is more, even if the assault on freedom of information and speech involved in the measures against social media could, with some good will, be squeezed to fit into the frames of a minimally decent liberal democracy, to punish people who have done nothing against the law for the criminal actions undertaken by other people cannot. Period.
Neither will making large masses of people homeless help to secure that people in the future will not be very keen on rioting. Making people end up in a situation where they have nothing to loose is never a good recipe for upholding public order and peace. Causing such outcomes in a way that violates basic tenets of legal security and responsibility will hardly help either.
Now, parallel to this, Cameron is facing some harsh criticism for his (let's be honest) ranting in TV about how the police should have been acting tougher (see also here). Criticism, it should be noted, that comes from the police itself. Apparently, those that actually know anything about law enforcement also know that escalating spirals of collective violence is never an effective strategy in the long run for securing the standards and values of a decent society. Let's just hope that this spirit will prevail and that Mr. Cameron will revisit the basics of his political beliefs and come to his senses.