Rachel North: Drop the knife – but we'll keep our missiles, thanks

Until we stop brandishing our own weapons, what chance do our children have?

Sunday 23 October 2011 00:10

Years ago, I worked for a company that published a famous "men's" magazine. Although the reader was officially in his early twenties, we knew it was bought by teenagers, seduced not by the gung-ho articles written by middle-class graduates roughing it on expenses, but by pages featuring photo-shopped, almost-naked women and other glossy desirables: mostly gadgets and games to parade as a show of alpha-male status.

The magazine made me uncomfortable, but the final straw came when it published an array of gleaming, vicious knives laid out across the page as must-have objects of desire. The previous issue had featured expensive cameras. Aghast, I went to my boss, who simply shrugged.

"It's just a blokey thing," he said. "Blokes like looking at knives. Knives are cool."

"Knives kill people," I replied, horrified. "For God's sake, you know how old the readers are. What is this saying to them? That iPods are so two months ago and what you really need to be flashing down the pub is something that can cut someone's throat?"

I left the company a few months later.

Last week, five young people were stabbed to death in one day. I thought of that magazine and I wanted to cry. The horrible fact is that my boss was right. Knives are cool. When you hold a sharp, deadly knife, you can feel an intoxicating rush of power.

I have a dagger, a gift from an ex-boyfriend. It was made by adapting a metal file used to pare down horses hooves – and it fits seductively into my hand. I oil it and sharpen it twice a year, not because I want to use it, but because it is an exquisite piece of craftsmanship and deserves to be looked after.

I can remember what it was like to be a 15-year old, awash with hormones and insecurities, dreamy and silly, and hyper-sensitive to the pettiest slight. I can remember how angry I was at the bullies in school, though they did not direct the full force of their venom at me.

I wonder, if I'd had that knife then, whether I would have been able to keep it locked away and never show it to anyone.

Years later, when I was no longer a teenager, I was attacked by a violent young man. My lethal knife was safely in its padlocked box, useless to me. Even if I'd had it to hand, I doubt I would have been able to hold on to it in the struggle. It would have escalated things, it would have been used against me. I would probably be dead.But then again, maybe not. Maybe he would be the dead one.

I'm glad I will never know.

There is a secret arms race going on in our schools and streets. Yet as we hold up our hands in horror at teenagers carrying knives, we turn on the news and see Iran test-firing missiles, America saying it will not hesitate to defend Israel, Israel brandishing its military hardware, hawks circling. The old, old game of brinkmanship, that fatal human lust for more territory, possessions and power is reported daily on our television screens. And we wonder that youngsters are gripped by the same dark desires? Of course they are. These are our children. They feel and do as we do.

The end result is the same, whether the one arming himself is a president or a school prefect. If people collect deadly weapons to use as a deterrent, and can't stop themselves from displaying them and using them, then people get killed. Poor sacrifices of our enmity indeed.

What can we do? In Romeo and Juliet, where violence runs as a taut thread throughout the play, Prince Escalus threatens brawling young men with "pain of torture". Tory politicians suggest mandatory prison sentences for those caught carrying knives, but the prisons are full as it is.

Parenting programmes, fresh police powers and shock warnings to youngsters are mooted instead by the Home Secretary. Maybe they will work. Maybe the Government can spend enough on advertising to make knives uncool. But I doubt it.

It is not my beautiful knife that is the problem, it is what I could do with it, which is why it must stay forever locked away. It is not knives that kill, but the people wielding them, which is why we must not carry them. It is the fire-eyed fury that threatens to engulf us, our angry reactions to each other, our desire to protect ourselves from violence by threatening even worse violence. Our stupidly comforting delusion that we can be safe only by being harder and stronger and more fearsome than the figures in our own nightmares – that is the real lethal threat.

Until we are adult enough to throw our mistempered weapons to the ground, or at least put them away and stop brandishing them for effect, what chance do our children have?

Rachel North is the author of Out of the Tunnel, a memoir of surviving violence

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