In the summer of 2011 several English cities witnessed explosions of very public violence. Rioters, for the most part young men, smashed windows, looted shops, set fires and threw stones at the ranks of armoured police who descended on them. Afterwards, most people responded in one of two ways. Right-wing politicians and commentators lined up behind David Cameron to condemn ‘mindless violence and thuggery’. On the left, the story was about inequality, unemployment and bad policing. With a few honourable exceptions, nobody asked the rioters.
People who do violent things usually have some sense of why they do them. We might not like their reasoning, but we can’t properly understand violence without it. Sticking with the riots as an example, the left-wing narrative clearly has a lot to be said for it, with interpretations backed up by solid data on urban deprivation. But it lacks the voice of the Londoner in his mid-20s who said, ‘When no one cares about you you’re gonna eventually make them care, you’re gonna cause a disturbance.’ For him rioting wasn’t an instinctive reaction to big structural forces – it was strategic, a sensible thing to do under the circumstances.