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Giles Fraser: Stand up to the copying of violence

17 August 2011

Broadway Market is said to have been one of those places that inspired EastEnders. Set between the green parkland of London Fields and the social decay of Haggerston, this part of Hackney is as East End as you can imagine. In recent years, there has been some gentrification, and the 19th-century market has enjoyed something of a revival, as incoming foodies have drawn stalls from trendy places such as Borough Market. It was the perfect place to sit out in the sun and enjoy lunch on Friday — or so I thought.

I noticed the three boys straight away. All of them wore masks. One had a thick black Puffa jacket with the hood up. Strutting up to the market, they oozed menace. I pushed my rucksack a little further under my table, and made a mental note not to look them in the eye. They casually walked down the line of tables, slowly deciding what it was that they wanted to steal.

Then they picked up the mobile phone of a pregnant woman, and off they ran, round the corner into one of the housing estates. There was no point giving chase, even had I the guts to do so. Trapped in the nearby flats, anyone would have been an easy target. Of course, the police weren’t much interested, either. It was just a tiny act of brutality, in a week that had seen a thousand times worse.

But I was deeply angry. Earlier in the week, I had tuned into Nick Ferrari’s talk show on LBC radio, and was disgusted by the various ways in which many callers expressed their outrage at the rioters. They should be taken to Afghanistan and thrown out of an aeroplane. “Bring back flog­ging” was a popular line. Someone spoke of sterilisation. But, walking back from Broadway Market, I was feeling the same sort of outrage.

Words from last Sunday’s epistle at matins spoke directly into this situation: “Beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability” (2 Peter 3.17). It was easy to interpret in the light of the theology of René Girard, who warns that violence is dangerously mimetic — that even the very instincts we engage in reaction against violence can themselves be yet further expressions of violence itself.

This is why the hero of the hour is Tariq Jahan, father of one of the three young men killed in Birmingham last week. A day later, he told the gathered crowd: “I lost my son. Blacks, Asians, whites, we all live in the same community. . . Why do we have to kill one another? Step forward if you want to lose your sons. Otherwise, calm down and go home.”

The refusal to copy the violence of the other must be our first reaction to the rioting on our streets.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

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