Will the obvious lessons of the riots be learned?

There have been sickening and heartbreaking images this week of an 89-year-old barber shop owner standing in the ruins of the business he ran for more than 40 years; and a bewildered, injured Malaysian student being robbed by thugs pretending to offer help.

The shame we all have to bear as a result of the actions of a few is indeed great but with order restored to the streets of England’s cities, the post-mortem of the past week’s events can at least begin and it is a conversation that this newspaper for one is glad we are finally having.

The scale of the lawlessness was a shock to everyone but, as some have pointed out, the events were not entirely unexpected.

They were to an extent foreseen because too many of us can point to at least one unpleasant encounter with a yob or lout in our lifetime. Whether it was a foul-mouthed student throwing a tantrum in the school classroom; or a hooligan breaking windows or setting fire to bins; or a thug viciously assaulting an innocent passer-by because they did not like the way they were looked at.

We sleepwalked into a moral and social breakdown of our own making because time after time the valid and reasonable concerns of those with more traditionalist values were brushed aside, quashed, scoffed and sneered at.

Such selfish behaviour went unchecked. Excuse after excuse was made for atrocious behaviour. Rules became a dirty word, and discipline virtually a violation of the rights of children. Instead of being taught the notion of mutual respect, the lesson taught to a whole generation was that respect was something only they were entitled to.

Instead of handing out punishments tough enough to deter such bad behaviour before it even happened, criminals were redefined as victims, while the real victims were left weeping at the injustice of yet another criminal who got away with it.

As one looter brazenly declared to the BBC, he would go on looting until he was caught because “nothing is going to happen to me”. For too long, the emphasis has been on rights and not on responsibilities.

But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that the riots are the only fruit of the shift in attitudes. Right across our society, from poor nobodies to the rich and famous, there pervades a tendency towards lewdness, profanity, vulgarity and loutishness that very few have had the courage to speak out against for fear of sounding not very cool.

The riots are only the worst of the bad behaviour but take a stroll into any English city on a Friday or Saturday night and it won’t be long before you see vomiting, urinating, fighting, flashing, people falling over drunk, or other examples of moronic behaviour that is not seen in even the poorest and least educated countries of the world.

The rest of the world is so thoroughly repulsed by it – just ask longer-term visitors to this country or anyone living in the Mediterranean resorts popular with British tourists. Even many Brits are repulsed by it, and yet it continues to be tolerated and anyone who condemns it can expect to be heckled down as an old-fashioned bore and a kill joy. There is a reason why America adores the likes of William and Kate, Colin Firth and Emma Watson, while other less savoury exports have had a cooler reception.

It is not only the streets of England that need to be cleaned up after the riots, but society as a whole. The “sober analysis” called for by the Bishop of London has begun but the question is not only what social ills lie behind the riots, but whether we will heed the lessons and have the courage to put things right.

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