Sadiq Khan is the mayor of London, who now sees the error of his earlier ways of enforcing the law. London is suffering a wave of murder, which is no stranger to Old Blighty, as fans of “Midsomer Murders” and other popular imported British television fare well know. But this murder in London is up close and personal, mayhem is often random, and there’s getting to be more of it.
In February and March, London counted more murders than New York City, which shocked our British cousins no end. Tut-tutting Americans for their tolerance of guns and violent crime has been a staple of London newspapers for years. Now there’s statistical proof that for all its manifold shortcomings, even New York is not necessarily more violent than London.
The British tabloids and “the telly” are awash in stories about young men stabbed while waiting for a bus, out for an evening stroll, or chased down a well-lighted street by gangs and put to death, execution style, at the point of a blade. Television viewers have lately been spellbound watching a video of a passenger disarming a man with a knife on a bus in North London, with the incident filmed by another passenger.
Murder in London comes with an important distinction: Death in London is usually murder by the point of a blade, not at the end of a gun barrel. Guns are hard to get. His Honor the mayor has invoked “knife control,” with a vengeance. He has deployed a flying squad of 300 cops to London’s most dangerous neighborhoods, with authority to stop and search “anyone” they suspect is carrying a knife. This would probably be a violation of the Fourth Amendment in the United States, where the Constitution forbids unreasonable search and seizure, but a growing number of Londoners say “it’s about time.”
Knifings across the British Isles is up 21 percent, according to quarterly numbers kept by the Office of National Statistics, with stabbings in London in 2017 at their highest level in six years, up 23 percent over the previous year. This was particularly disappointing because overall crime rates had continued to fall in England and Wales, following a trend since the mid-1990s.
Mayor Khan, a Muslim, had been severely chastised in the London newspapers for not saying much about the recent epidemic of knife attacks, and many Londoners noticed that many of the victims and most of the suspects were Muslims. It’s generally considered impolite in Britain to connect the dots, but many do. In response to the outcry, the mayor has not only dispatched more police officers to the scenes of the crimes, but he has authorized stop-and-search as well as a ban of home deliveries of knives and acid purchased legally. Knives and acid are the two most common weapons used in London.
Police are particularly concerned about the street popularity of the so-called “zombie knife,” with a long, wide blade inspired by horror movies, available on the street for $10. The zombie knife is now against the law, but there’s a busy black market online.
Though drugs and gang warfare are cited as causes of the spike in murder and mayhem, it is not confined to the mean streets of the slums. Some of the stabbings have been in wealthy neighborhoods, such as Chelsea and on the streets outside Parliament. Real-estate agents say their clients typically investigate crime statistics when buying or renting houses, eager to avoid certain neighborhoods.
“Stabbings are on the front pages every week,” Lucy Holbert, a real-estate agent, tells The New York Times. “They are no longer confined to certain dangerous pockets of London. It’s happening everywhere.”
When he successfully campaigned for mayor in 2015, Mayor Khan promised to “do everything in my power to cut ‘stop-and-search,’ because it undermines public confidence in local government and policing systems.” But now, after an education that is better late than never, the mayor says “stop and search” is a “vital tool” in fighting violent crime.
“I’m not a criminal,” one young man, 19, tells The New York Times. “I’ve never hurt anyone, but you’ve got to do what it takes to survive.” Just so.