Thursday, 24 January 2008

London knife killings

Four times a day during term-time – once in the morning, twice at lunchtime and once again in the afternoon – the relative peace of the Red Pepper magazine office is broken by boisterous groups of teenage boys making their way to and from the nearby St Aloysius Roman Catholic school. I compete with them for pavement space or observe them from the ground-floor window sometimes when I go there. They’re loud, rowdy and occasionally troublesome but not so very different to teenage boys gathered in large numbers anywhere.

And two of them who would have been passing the Red Pepper windows four times a day this time last year have been stabbed to death in the space of just six months.

The first, back in June, was Martin Dinnegan, a bright, lively 14-year-old whose family lives a few hundred yards from me, killed outside the chip shop just around the corner from where I brought up my daughter. A 15-year-old has been charged with his murder.

The second was Nassirudeen Osawe, Nass, killed on Islington’s main shopping street two days after Christmas and four days shy of what should have been his 17th birthday. He, too, lived down the road from me. In his case, too, another teenager is the alleged killer.

According to the Metropolitan Police, 27 teenagers were killed in London in 2007. Most of them were the victims of knife attacks; most involved some sort of conflict over territory or group affiliation or ‘respect’, even though most of the victims were not themselves involved with gangs or associated activity.

I’d like to think that this is all the result of deprivation, social inequality and a shortage of facilities such as youth clubs. But it isn’t.

There is clearly something going on culturally that is causing heightened levels of violence among teenage boys and young men. The solutions, like the causes, are complex, but the pat notion that it’s all, or even largely, to do with material conditions simply isn’t good enough.

I grew up in a testosterone-charged environment of adolescent male rebellion and aggression. I was expelled from school at 15 (though I found my way back into education again later due to a combination of personal will, parental influence and the solid foundation of learning and inspiration provided by teachers at a previous school).

But there were cultural limits, shared values within our teenage peer groups at the time that put a brake on even the most extreme behaviour. Not the least of these was the notion that certain forms of violence were not acceptable, that they were, in fact, cowardly – unmanly even. The limits were framed in terms of basic negatives: you don’t pick on someone smaller than yourself; you don’t kick someone when he’s down; you don’t use knives or other weapons.

I can’t help feeling that the development of a climate of young male opinion in which the carrying and use of knives, guns and other weapons is held up as being cowardly would do more to turn boys and young men against doing so than any manner of other measures that do nothing to challenge their sense of machismo.

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