The investigation into the killing of Anthony Walker is ongoing, so we do not yet know the full circumstances of his death. But what we do know is terrible enough. He was sitting at a bus stop in Huyton at 11.30pm with his girlfriend and his cousin when a man in a hooded top approached and - police say - racially abused them. Without responding, the three walked in the direction of another bus stop through a nearby park where they were attacked by a group of men. Walker was left on the ground, an axe embedded in his skull. He died early on Saturday in a specialist medical centre.
The police have treated the case as a racially motivated attack. Walker was a promising student from a good home. He was not involved in any criminal activities. The appalling reality seems to be that this young man - like Stephen Lawrence before him - was killed, police believe, because of the colour of his skin.
It is tempting to take the view that we have made little progress in the 12 years since Lawrence was stabbed to death at a bus stop in south-east London by a gang of white youths. But, despite the sickening nature of this latest crime, there are signs that our society has learnt some of the lessons from the Lawrence murder. The most obvious area of improvement can be seen in the response of the police. The operation to hunt down those responsible is entirely professional. They were quick to make an appeal to the public for information. And yesterday they arrested a man. In short, there is no indication that they are not treating the case with the seriousness it so manifestly deserves.
This is a far cry from the manner in which the police responded to the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. The Macpherson report into that investigation was damning. It found that the police's unwillingness to follow up leads let those responsible for the murders evade justice. It put this failure down to a mixture of incompetence and "institutional racism". To their credit, the police have implemented many of the recommendations of the Macpherson report. And the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, accepted the need to root out racism from the force. But there are still problems. A worrying number of black men still die while in police custody. A BBC undercover documentary two years ago exposed some shocking examples of racism in the modern police force.
This murder also raises worrying questions about wider society in Britain. How can we - a stable country that prides itself on its values of tolerance - continue to produce this hatred? And why is there even a hint from the police that the predominantly white Liverpool community where Walker lived might be loath to come forward with information about who might have committed this grotesque crime?
We are entering a dangerous period with respect to race relations in this country. The threat from Islamic suicide bombers has prompted an upsurge of attacks on Muslims. Even the most unprejudiced of people have found themselves wary of their fellow passengers on trains and buses. As the reaction to the murder of Anthony Walker shows, these are unsettled times. It is vital that all Britons, of every ethnic background, maintain a sense of perspective and confront extremism whenever it appears with a united voice of condemnation.Reuse content