The killing, in the early hours of Saturday morning, of David Morley, is quite extraordinarily barbaric. He was punched and kicked to death by a mixed group of girls and boys identified by witnesses as teenagers. They set upon him in the culmination of a sudden, intense series of attacks on various passers-by, which in 15 minutes escalated from smashing a bottle over the head of a man on a bench, to murder.
It seems evident from the course of events that these young people did not know Mr Morley, who was walking home from the London nightclub, Heaven, with a friend, when they both were set upon. It is reasonable to conclude as well that these attacks were unpremeditated since none of the protagonists used anything in their crimes other than improvised weapons picked up in the street.
It is possible that Mr Morley's selection was entirely random, simply a case of being in very much the wrong place at very much the wrong time. But other victims of the frenzied outbreak of violence say they believe they were targeted because of their sexuality. The Metropolitan Police are convinced enough by the evidence they have heard so far to consider the crime homophobic.
Does such a motivation make this crime any more repellent than it already is? Does such a motivation render David Morley's death any more tragic? A humane pragmatist might quite successfully answer No. A man has died violently and pitilessly at the hands of angry strangers. What could be more awful than that? In some respects the motivation of these young hate-mongers is irrelevant, since no motivation could do anything to explain or justify their deed.
Yet it is instructive to examine such questions in the light of the fact that Mr Morley, a barman by trade, had survived the homophobic nail-bombing of the Admiral Duncan pub by the self-styled fascist terrorist, David Copeland, in 1999.
Minute examination of the machinations of fate might conclude that Mr Morley was lucky to survive such an awful event. He along with 73 others was injured, certainly, but three far unluckier victims lost their lives. A more broad-brush view would consider that to be caught up at all in an act of such psychotic rage - unique, thank God, in British history - was quite unlucky enough.
Sadly, such a view would be entirely wide of the mark. Mr Morley's life, it has proved, was quite remarkably ill-starred. Yet it has to be noted that however unlucky Mr Morley may have been, the particulars of his extreme ill-fortune were dictated by his sexuality. The conclusion has to be that it is much easier to be unlucky - as far as the ill-luck of being the victim of a random hate attack is concerned - when you are gay, than when you are straight.
Reality appears to confirm such an assumption with 38 per cent of gays and transsexuals, according to one government report, having experienced or witnessed a homophobic attack. It is surprising, though, how much resentment such an assertion still attracts, even in this time of supposed liberal acceptance of sexual difference.
Last April's Criminal Justice Bill put homophobic attacks on the same footing as race attacks - as aggravated offences that demand a greater punishment because they are an attack on diversity and freedom within society.
Yet what should have been a milestone in public perception of homophobic crime has proved instead to have been something of a damp squib.
The poor record of the police in prosecuting such attacks is cited as proof that the gay community is being politically correct and hysterical in its claims. The rise of 10 per cent in reported homophobic attacks in London in the past year is entirely put down to cultural changes in the way the Metropolitan police collects its data.
I'm the first to admit that in some respects the left's retreat into identity politics in the past few decades has been an admission of defeat. In a real sense, these issues were grasped because people lost faith in the idea that society could be transformed by tackling inequalities of class and wealth. The task of changing hearts and minds was deemed more attainable than that of changing economic systems and established privilege.
On the whole, that more modest ambition has been attained. Among the general public, acceptance of racial difference, of gender equality and of sexual diversity, has massively increased. In his attitude to gays, women and ethnic minorities, the man, woman or LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, to use the current politically correct parlance) on the Clapham omnibus, has been transformed.
But for a sinister rump of the population, attitudes have hardened. Despite all the celebration about falling crime figures, and all the obfuscation about what constitutes a hate crime, the rise in violent crime is not just about drugs and guns.
Again and again we are told that the rise in hate crimes - and I include sex crimes in the definition of hate crimes since they are so patently misogynistic - is a paradoxical consequence of liberal acceptance, a jolly and comforting sign that people are now less constrained when it comes to approaching the police and reporting crimes against themselves.
But I don't buy that. What I see is violent anger on the increase - fuelled often by alcohol and drugs, it's true - clear in incidents of road-rage, air-rage, and sheer bad temper, as much as in reported incidences of homophobic or race or sex crimes.
It is devoutly to be hoped that the four young people who carried out their unbelievably violent attacks on Saturday night are quickly apprehended. It is clear that they are dangerous people, probably caught up in a web of relationships among themselves that encourages their anger and aggression to be fully vented.
But it also to be hoped that their motivations can somehow be fully studied and understood. It may be that these young people were influenced by the strains of homophobia that still exist quite blatantly in our society. Schoolchildren, perhaps influenced by the homophobic lyrics that Peter Tatchell's Outrage group so rightly campaigns against, perhaps by the self-consciously camped-up portrayal of gay men that persists in popular culture, perhaps by use of the adjective "gay" as a term of playground abuse.
But my hunch is that their anger has other roots, and that its expression in homophobic violence is simply the way in which it finds its way out. This is not to say that homophobic crimes should not be tackled as such. In these bitter, angry times, we have a civic duty to save special condemnation for the crimes that single out sections of society as scapegoats, and make certain people much more "unlucky" than others because of their creed or sexuality or gender. But we have to look urgently at the violence and the anger that is creeping up in Britain and exploding around the world.
As all eyes turn to the US elections, the odd fact is that this 15-minute rampage on the banks of the Thames encapsulates similar and similarly frightening issues about how we live together in the world. The symptom is the way we label our enemies. The problem is the violent aggression that so many people feel that it is legitimate for them to express.Reuse content