Seeing things with your own eyes does not necessarily make them any clearer. Like everyone else, I have followed the spate of recent stories about knife crime – at first with sorrow, and later with grim resignation at how inevitable it is that another one will happen, and with another set of heartbreaking personal details driving home how terrible it is.
But I've also looked at the statistics, and the Home Office figures released on Thursday suggest that the crisis of violence among young people, in particular in London, is a classic media boondoggle. This is where canny tabloid editors latch on to an aspect of the facts that makes for apocalyptic reading, and ratchet these up and repeat them until a set of private tragedies begin to seem as if they belong to us all – and are given a meaning and a weight that they cannot really bear.
I know all this. But on Friday night, as I left a friend's party wondering whether to get a bus or a taxi, I noticed a foul spattered arc of blood on the pavement, and a huddle of anxious people further up the road. There were brittle voices reassuring themselves that things were going to be all right, and asking where the ambulance was, and telling each other to keep pressure on the wound, and desperately imploring someone to stay still. A long minute or two later, there was the outraged shriek of a siren.
A man had been stabbed in the neck, and none of the sensible things I knew and still know about violent crime seemed to have anything to do with it at all.
There was blood everywhere, from thin drips on the curb to a rich, dark agglomeration at his neck. Tissues and T-shirts were so sodden they were no longer any use to staunch the flow. His top had ridden up so you could see his belly rise and fall in gulps that took longer, and longer, and longer.
He made terrible, primal noises, trying to pull himself out of this horror with feeble jerks of his arms and legs. It was impossible to look away. People said he was doing really well, he was doing brilliantly, he was going to be fine, they would be here in a minute, just hold on, just please stay still. But he kept moving. It looked as if he was trying to get up. Even after the paramedics arrived, and got him on to a gurney, and gave him oxygen, he didn't stop.
"You've got to hold still, mate, or I can't keep the pressure on it," one of the paramedics said, but it was no use. He kept moving. There was nothing to be done. His efforts had a desperate knowledge about them, a hopeless instinct in the face of an implacable, permanent fact. He died about an hour later, the BBC reported the next morning. He was 27. Three people have been arrested in connection with his murder.
I wandered around for a while and then bumped into a friend leaving the same party. A few minutes later, we passed the memorial to Ben Kinsella, murdered nearby last month.
There is very little else to say. Within the parameters that have been established for this particular crisis, it hardly even counts: no one involved was a teenager. It is just an awful, incomprehensible waste. But even a string of such obscenities can't break the real Britain, which is simply too mundane to digest it.
The things I knew about crime before I will probably find I know again tomorrow. I will still go to the pub and the park and the cinema; I will still go to work on Monday morning and ask people how their weekend was and laugh at jokes and fret about things that don't matter. So will everyone else.
What more is there? The only thing I can think of is this: to turn the man who died on Friday into an abstract argument for why we're all going to hell in a handcart would be an outrageous elision of the fact that he was a real person. I know this like I know everything else I know about crime, and yet here I am, still trying to draw more meaning out of it. The truth is, I don't think there is any – except for the people who loved this nameless 27-year-old, and whose lives will never be the same again.
Is Britain becoming a more dangerous place to live? it all depends on how you look at it...
The latest annual crime statistics from the Home Office were released last week, containing police and British Crime Survey (BCS) figures. Predictably, these conflict with each other, and with most other crime statistics published.
Is crime increasing, or not? According to the Government, overall crime is down by 9 per cent, with almost five million crimes recorded by the police in 2007-08. The BCS, which asked 47,000 people about their experiences of crime, recorded a decline of 10 per cent. Yet it reported 10 million crimes – double the police figure. And BCS figures indicated almost 130,000 attacks involving knives last year, while the police recorded 22,000. The gap reflects the fact that many people do not report crimes, as they may distrust police.
So, what are the figures not telling us? The BCS doesn't cover youth crime, as under-16s are not included. Neither are crimes against shop workers, businesses, the homeless or those in institutions. And if someone has been mugged several times, it will count as one crime.
What can the figures tell us about knife crime? More than half of young victims of knife crime don't report it to the police, and 45 per cent even manage to keep it from parents. Although maintaining that "recorded crime statistics show knife crime is broadly stable", a Home Office spokesman said: "We've always recognised that figures don't tell the whole story."
Should we trust the Government's numbers? No, says the Statistics Commission. In 2006, it criticised police figures for being "an imperfect measure of crime".Reuse content