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What will reach the ASBO youth?

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I FIND myself feeling increasingly depressed, and sometimes plain angry: depressed by the casual violence of some of our young people; angry at their sheer effrontery.

Calm down, I hear you say: street violence is nothing new. The vulnerable have always been, well, vulnerable. Charles Dickens knew it more than 150 years ago, when he had that "Merry Old Gentleman" Fagin teach his gang of boy thieves the black art of the "kinchin lay" - the simple tactic of waylaying children sent on errands, and relieving them violently of their sixpences and shillings.

Simple mugging for gain I can understand. An altogether more baffling phenomenon is that of the "feral gangs", the predatory juveniles, beyond reason or restraint, whose activities seem now to be coalescing into a disturbing trend.

First, a note of caution: many so-called trends are nothing of the sort. They are often newspaper scares that "wants to make your flesh creep" with stories about blood-curdling accidents with hay-baling machines or assaults by vicious dogs.

Yet anecdotal experience and simple observation suggest that something is going awry with our youngsters' behaviour. The question is how to correct it. Anti-social-behaviour orders (ASBOs), which restrict offenders' freedom, while threatening them with criminal prosecution if the restrictions are breached, are the latest Home Office solution. But the fact that official figures say that they are now being handed out with unprecedented frequency suggests that they are having a limited impact.

Behaviour is the end product of attitude. And when the respect individuals demand for themselves is in inverse proportion to that which they accord others, or when perceived slights to the ego routinely prompt outbursts of self-righteous rage, then violent behaviour is only a matter of time. Attitudes are unlikely to be shaped by ASBOs alone.

Another solution was tried some years ago by the Bell Farm Christian Centre ( Features, 1 July). Living and working in a run-down estate beneath Heathrow' s flight path, the Revd Tony Pilkington and his wife, family and congregation found themselves in the front line of a battle against violence and gang rule. They decided that a concerted community response was the only viable antidote.

The first step was to make it clear that they intended to stand their ground in the face of intimidation, and so they withstood barrages of verbal and physical abuse. Later, they began a 40-day vigil of prayer and fasting, during which Mr Pilkington sensed a palpable easing of the tension. Next, they took their spiritual battle to the streets, celebrating outdoor holy communion at roundabouts and other flash points, where their presence, at times loudly derided, could not be ignored.

At the same time, they started programmes for bored youngsters, lunch clubs for the elderly, and training courses for the unemployed. They set up parenting classes and toddler groups. Gradually, they reported small victories against the forces of darkness.

Certainly, there have been repeats of the trouble, but the church has made a difference. While ASBOs will have a part to play, they are surely no substitute for the kind of community action and personal faith shown by the intrepid Mr Pilkington and his courageous flock.

Trevor Barnes presents Reporting Religion for the BBC World Service.

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