Sunday, October 21, 2007

Facing the gun

My colleague, who I will call Brenda, is really the salt of the earth. A high flyer, no, but a sincere person, yes. She does not pretend to anyone she loves her job but she does like people and above all she cares for and loves her daughter.

Brenda rings her daughter each day around 4pm to check on her progress home from school. Her daughter is 13 and Brenda is finding need to raise her voice a bit more to get her home these days. She doesn't want her daughter hanging around in the local shopping centre or with "unsuitable" boys in general.

Last Friday Brenda's daughter wasn't at school. The teachers were having a training day and Brenda's daughter was at home. In actual fact Brenda had arranged for a friend to be around and keep an eye on the girl. Another friend's son was also around.

Then in the middle of the day, Brenda took a call and her voice was raised to an unprecendented level during my time in the office.

"I don't care. You get home immediately" she cried through gritted teeth down the phone. She had gone from mild mannered lady to a cauldron of anger and fear at the flick of a switch. It was Brenda's business but I was guessing her daughter was really getting hard work !

However, the real problem Brenda revealled later was her friend's son had had a gun put to his head while walking through the park with a friend. Two youths had demanded his mobile phone. He handed it over without a murmur. The other boy had no phone and was beaten in the face as "punishment".

The youths with the gun scarpered and a short while later the police arrived. Brenda's daughter had not been there but she came out to the park and was there when she called her mother. Hence the fear and anger combined.

Brenda does not live in the nicest bit of London but equally not the worst by a long way. The boy who had a gun put to his head was visiting from nearby Dartford in Kent.

Brenda was angry and upset that her beloved daughter was so close to such goings on. She could have all to easily been with the two boys when they were attacked.

This is the closest that the recent spate of gun crime has reached people I know so far. I generally assume that media coverage can overstate the risks. Yes there have been a few dreadful killings of young people but in a country of 60 million these things need to be kept in perspective. Yet I am starting to realise the killings are only the visible tip of a much larger iceberg of intimidation and fear in this country.

The received wisdom now is that one should never fight back in any robbery or mugging situation. My colleagues, grown men and Fathers, say they would never go out and confront a youth damaging a car or neighbour's fence. The stock response is either ignore it or call the police.

Likewise horrific stories sometimes emerge in the media of people being attacked on buses and trains while fellow passengers ignore the incident as they are too afraid to help.

I would see two types of situation in this area.

Firstly, where it is unjustifiably risky to fight back. In this category a gun against the head for a mobile phone is a straightforward calculation. While Britain has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the world and many guns are fakes, many others are not. The value of any phone does not justify risking getting shot. So anyone is right to hand over their phone in such a situation.

The second situation is where intervention or "fighting back" is a real option and I believe as a country the law abiding majority are getting too collectively cowardly for their own good.

If someone is punched and kicked by a lone thug on a crowded train then surely we need to learn as a society to club together and tackle the thug ? That is not exceptional bravery, it is a calculated risk in challenging aggression and doing what is right.

The risk is, if we move ever more to never challenging criminals that they will get ever more brazen and more of us will be victims.

Criminals are rarely good marksmen and rarely skilled fighters. Their sole competive advantage is a willingness to resort to intimidation and crude violence against the general population who are too fearful to engage them.

The law abiding majority need to raise their game, take self defence classes, martial arts classes and similar if need be. While we don't need to take silly risks we do need to sometime draw a line and learn to intelligently fight back.

Otherwise 13 year old boys getting guns put to their head in a park on a Friday afternoon may get a lot more common than it is now.

On another continent and a very different culture, over 100 volunteers were murdered in Pakistan this week, as they protected Benazir Bhutto from a predicted attack. By forming a human shield they prevented the suicide bombers getting close enough to kill Benazir Bhutto. She owes her life to hundreds and thousands who volunteered to protect her vehicle while having a pretty good idea of the risks. That sacrifice is awe inspiring and one that few of us in comfortable countries such as Britain can really imagine doing. However the principle of being prepared to stand up to violence and intimidation is ultimately the same.

Sometimes the price of challenging aggression can be high but the alternative of always protecting our own safety and lives will ironically end up in an existence that could not be seen as living at all. For two thirteen year olds to walk in the park should not be a dangerous thing to do but increasing numbers are finding that in a nation intimidated by a minority of unchallenged criminals many ordinary activities in ordinary places are getting very dangerous.

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