Tim Lott: What hope for the Peter Woodhamses when we cower behind the curtains

Now the shoe is on the other foot - adults live in fear of children
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The Independent Online

Although we do not know the full story behind the murder of Peter Woodhams in Canning Town, east London last week, I think we know enough to state this; Peter Woodhams was a very brave man. To single-handedly face down a gang of youths is gutsy, but to do it a second time after you have been stabbed in the neck by the same gang a few months previously is positively heroic.

Heroic and, of course, foolhardy. What man now can afford to have the dignity of protecting his home and family in the face of thuggery, even when it's by kids as young as 10? Not me. The potential price is too high. I think, soft though I am, I am tough enough to risk a punch in the face to stand against the tide of lawless- ness, but I am nowhere near prepared for a knife or a gun. Instead, I do what most men do nowadays. I retreat behind the curtains in silent shame.

In this sense, an element of civic duty is fading away. A few generations ago, young people lived for the most part with an underlying fear - or if you prefer, respect - of adults. This was only partly the rational fear of the fabled and partially mourned clip round the ear. It was also bred in the bone, through the figures of glowering fathers, grim schoolteachers and the intimidating reputation of policemen.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. It is adults who live in fear of children. Yes, it's true that there have always been young thugs. I myself was a vandal in my teenage years - but one who would run away if challenged by an adult. Now, the sheer contempt many children and teenagers have for adults is unprecedented.

I experienced this last year when I was cycling in London. A man emerged from a shop, shouting after a couple of youths, aged 13 or so, who were escaping on BMX bikes. I wasn't sure what they had done, but it clearly wasn't bob-a-job. So I followed them at what I thought was a safe distance, hoping a policeman might turn up whom I could alert.

Suddenly, they swerved round to face me. The ferocity on their faces made my stomach kick. I affected innocence, and cycled past, as if on a pleasant afternoon excursion rather than a mission to pursue a pair of yobs.

Fifty yards later, they overtook me, swivelled again and blocked my path. Now it was clear the jig was up. I was going to get my head kicked in, or worse.

I managed to manoeuvre away from them and into a row of shops, where I dismounted and sought safety in a crowd. It was enough - they disappeared. But the memory of their fearlessness and indignation that I should dare follow them has remained. The event still leaves me with a sense of shame. With my retreat, I did my bit to join the outgoing tide of civic responsibility. Yes, I followed them, but they were stronger than me, and - this is the frightening bit - more morally outraged than I was. They, I assumed, had merely appropriated some article of property. I had committed the more existential crime of infringing their right to do so with impunity.

This strange seizing of the moral initiative has an echo in another time when I was attacked, this time in my home. A man followed me through my door as I brought in the shopping. I turned and challenged him. He immediately bellowed, "You're a racist", and seized me round the neck. And do you know what I did? I apologised. I apologised to a man who had walked into my house without my permission.

Unplacated, the man demanded my wallet. I meekly handed it over. He then informed me he was going to "phone some friends", presumably to mete out justice for my insolence. At this point I managed to break away. Bored with the theatre, he left.

What weird, inverted times we live in. The most powerful part of our social control, the "inner policeman" has left the building, to be replaced by the "inner victim". It is not true that young hooligans do not have a sense of right or wrong. They are right, they are sure; and we are wrong.

I don't know how this great moral inversion took place - not mere shamelessness, but actual moral pride in any kind of wrongdoing. I suppose it is at least partly because we "good citizens", or "Normans" as the street gangs contemptuously refer to us, have stood by as two developments have unfolded - the growth of moral relativism, and the abandonment of the art of violence on the part of the large majority of the male population.

A lot has been written about moral relativism, largely by the Daily Mail, and I'm not keen to add to it. But it is true that many of us are confused now about what is right and what is wrong. What is whose fault? Is it society's? Is it the parents? Is it peer pressure? Is it underprivilege? The idea of something simply being wrong has crumbled, and it has left a vacuum that hooligans have filled with their own much more sturdy morality, which goes along these lines: whatever we do is right and, if you try to stop us, you, with all your judges and policemen and moral vanities, are wrong. Witness the young man who killed Damilola Taylor screaming at the judge, "You are corrupt, you are nothing."

And does that not say it all? We are corrupt, we are nothing. That is how they feel about us and, appallingly, that is what part of us feels about ourselves. And so long as we cannot grasp that an act can be simply wrong, quite irrespective of other causative factors, then we betray our whole society and the social contract is fatally undermined. Second, "masculine values", at least among the middle class, are on the wane. Being violent in any context, once sanctioned for men - indeed trained into them under National Service - has, for good or ill, been discredited. We in the middle class are meek as kittens now. And those less enlightened men, further down the social ladder, who have made no such concession to liberal hopes, are reaping the rewards.

It is hard to see a way back. The enemy is armed and dangerous and certain of its purpose. We are soft, afraid and confused. There is only the police between us and those who wish us harm - the same police who ignored Peter Woodhams' plea for justice after he was stabbed in the neck. The same police, who, when I ran into a London police station seeking help after a man threatened me and my children, was told, surlily, that there were "no police in the station".

I know this will leave any liberal credentials I have in tatters, but thank God for Asbos, and thank God for men who still use their fists in the face of thuggery, and thank God for Mr Woodhams. But he may be one of the last of what is, literally, a dying breed.