A black youth living in London might be forgiven for a bit of confusion this morning. All week we have been hearing about the dreadful spate in knife killings on London streets, most of them, it is painfully obvious from the victims’ photographs and the locations, have taken place in black communities. We have heard calls for more stop and search, a clampdown on anyone caught carrying a knife, for youths to be educated in how to channel their anger in order to prevent their emotions erupting into murderous intent. Then an elderly white man stabs an intruder to death and we wake up to headlines such as “give him a medal” and “‘Murder’ fury – petition launched to clear ‘hero’ OAP arrested over ‘burglar murder’”. And that is just the newspapers. Dozens of Tweeters have leapt in with their own ha’porth of wisdom under the hashtag #FreeRichardOsbornBrooks, with some seeming to suggest that every property-owner has the right to snuff out the life of anyone who steps onto their property, no questions asked. I wouldn’t want to be a postman or milkman round their way.
A country which just 24 hours ago was sunk into a moral panic about stabbing has, in other words, suddenly become one where it is something to be celebrated. There is already a GoFundMe page for Mr Osborn-Brooks. Maybe some psychologist can tell me that it is some kind of collective coping mechanism. But for some reason I can’t seem to share this joy about a man being stabbed to death, even if he was a burglar. On the contrary, it depresses me as much as London’s other fatal stabbings.
Neither I nor anyone else commenting on what happened in a quiet suburban road in Hither Green yesterday knows the full facts. It might well be that Mr Osborn-Brooks will be found to have been acting with reasonable force in self-defence. There are reports that the intruder was ‘armed’ with a screwdriver. If he really did lunge at Mr Osborn-Brooks with that implement then most of us will surely agree that the latter was justified in what followed. But then again, the screwdriver might turn out to have been only used as a tool, not a weapon. It might, like Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, turn out not to have existed at all, while the intruder might turn out to be less of a violent burglar than a confused individual who had entered the wrong house. It has happened.
Either way, it is surely inevitable that the police should investigate the incident – as they should every such case – in order to establish whether or not excessive force has been used. This is something that a good proportion of Tweeters seem to believe is entirely unnecessary. But if it does turn out that Mr Osborn-Brooks acted in valid self-defence, might that not also be true of some of the other people who have been arrested for fatal stabbings in London recently? We don’t know much about the circumstances of those, either – whether the person who delivered the fatal blow initiated the violence or whether it was the person who died. But I don’t recall the possibility of self-defence being much raised by the general public in these cases.
There seems to be a distinct difference in how the public responds to stabbings. If a black youth stabs another black youth to death we rush to the conclusion that the one who did the fatal stab is guilty of murder, and that whatever the provocation there was no excuse to carry a knife. If, on the other hand, a white homeowner stabs to death a burglar we jump to the conclusion that he had every right to do what he did, and to take pre-emptive action to arm himself however he sees fit.
There is something deeply disturbing here. If you are a youth who knows that other youths are carrying knives it is hardly surprising that you might come to the conclusion that you, too, ought to carry a knife. You are thinking self-defence in the same way as does the homeowner. Yet many people will agree that the collective decision of youths to carry knives, even if intended for self-defence, ups the stakes and leads to more deaths. We want to see black youths disarmed and taught not to rush to violence when provoked. Should we not apply the same thinking to white homeowners?