Paul Vallely: Vengeance is not the answer

Court sentences and communities seek revenge, but that merely perpetuates a damaging cycle

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A remarkable video was posted on the internet the other day. It showed a group of Muslim and Sikh men in an impromptu debate at the spot where three Asian men were mown down by a car in Birmingham during the riots. In response, 300 local men had gathered to decide how their community should react.

A few had come masked, expecting violence. There were calls for vengeance upon local blacks. There is a history of bad blood between Asians and blacks there; in 2006 there were two days of riots after wild rumours that a black teenager had been raped by British Pakistani men.

They met, after the last prayers of the day, at a candlelight vigil in Dudley Road for the dead men. The debate was uncontrolled by local politicians, community spokesmen or religious leaders. The men simply took it in turns to express their views and gradually a consensus emerged. One man who had initially wanted to take to the streets announced: "I've changed my mind, bro. The way I see, the brothers we can't control." The fear was that a handful of individuals would turn a peaceful protest violent, and that this would dishonour the memory of the dead men who "had died nobly".

The vocabulary was striking: honour and nobility are not words that are often heard in modern British political discourse. But it was probably something that was said earlier that swayed the men to disperse and go to their homes. The father of one of the dead men, Tariq Jahan, had, within hours of his son's death, made an extraordinary speech. After recounting how, with his hands and face covered in his son's blood, he had performed CPR at the roadside without success, he expressed his bewilderment at what happened, repeatedly asking why. A friend interrupted to say it was all the fault of the police but Mr Jahan turned that aside, saying: "I don't blame the Government. I don't blame the police. I don't blame nobody. It was his destiny and his fate, and now he's gone."

After he had appealed for calm, and called on the Muslim community to ignore calls for revenge, he concluded: "Step forward if you want to lose your sons." His peroration was met with total silence. So he said: "Otherwise, calm down and go home – please." It was the bereaved man's calm acceptance which set the tone for his community's response.

The wisdom of Tariq Jahan stood in stark contrast to the overheated rhetoric of politicians and press which was geared to expressing outrage rather than to addressing the deeper problems of the culture from which the rioting sprang. The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, ordered plans to be drawn up to remove benefits from rioters after 100,000 people signed a government e-petition demanding the change. The Housing minister, Grant Shapps, began consulting on how convicted rioters could automatically be evicted from their council houses. It was all of the same ilk as the earlier alarmed talk of water cannons and curfews.

This is all the something-must-be done school of politics, which ignores the fact that what is to be done should make things better, not worse. The British courts will almost certainly rule such moves illegal. But, more seriously, such knee-jerk reactions take no account of the fundamental change that would bring to the universal nature of a welfare state which responds to need not merit. It would also throw up all manner of anomalies between rioters and other criminals.

This is about revenge, not justice. Revenge holds huge attraction to the human psyche. Perhaps revenge was a useful mechanism of social control in primitive peoples, but as long ago as the 17th century, John Locke argued persuasively that it has no place in a modern society. One of the defining elements of a civilised society is that we all give up our right to private vengeance and delegate it to the state.

The debate is not quite over, of course, as the killing of Osama bin Laden showed. Philosophers – and, more revealingly, psychologists – in the United States engaged in fierce exchanges over whether revenge is a legitimate response by the state, and where the boundary lay between that and self-defence.

Should Bin Laden have been arrested and tried rather than killed? In a situation of international lawlessness, revenge is an acceptable deterrent, some said. Others argued that revenge produces a specious satisfaction which only disguises anger or fear. The faultline was between consequentialists who appeared open to revenge and those who, after Aristotle, define ethics in terms of what the virtuous person would do. The debate is circular, because human intuitions about justice have largely been developed in a different philosophical mindset from those on goodness.

Stiff sentences, however, are not necessarily an impulse to revenge. Some may feel it draconian that a man in Manchester was jailed for six months after being caught heading toward the riots carrying a balaclava and an empty bin bag. "I need to make an example of you," the judge said. Others have complained that the six-month sentence on the engineering student who stole six bottles of water worth £3.50 was excessive. But he was jailed not for stealing water but for helping to heat up the fevered atmosphere that saw men kicked to death in Ealing, shot dead in Croydon and fatally run down in Birmingham. Revenge is the act of passion; vengeance is an act of justice, said Samuel Johnson, borrowing from Aquinas.

The big question is what do you do after the tough sentences. Left and right stare in to the embers of the arson and see what they have always seen. The right blames gangsta rap or feral, benefit-dependent one-parent families. The left blames a profoundly unequal society in which many feel they have no stake with youth unemployment soaring. But "depraved or deprived" is a false dichotomy; both the economic liberalism of the right and the social liberalism of the left have played their part in creating the culture of intergenerational illiteracy, dependency, celebrity and consumerism that entraps the rioters.

A riot breaks through normal reality. Consensual civilised norms dissolve when enough individuals tear up the social contract. But that ought to give us a chance to ask new questions rather than parroting the old answers. "I've changed my mind, bro," said the man on Dudley Road. Perhaps that is something we all need to risk.

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