Not for the first time, I had to sit my three children down this week to have an uncomfortable conversation following the senseless death of Elianne Andam, the 15-year-old schoolgirl who was killed in Croydon on Wednesday morning.
Like any parent raising school-age children in today’s increasingly lawless Britain, I look at the young, smiling, hopeful faces of teenage stabbing victims once again splashed across the newspapers, and increasingly think to myself: there but for the grace of God go I.
It didn’t used to be this way. Stabbings once would invariably be the tragic outcome of gang violence or some sort of drug-fuelled turf war. Then schoolboys and girls who had nothing whatsoever to do with crime started being stabbed.
Children like Ben Kinsella, the academically gifted 16-year-old from Islington who died in 2008 after being knifed 11 times over a row he hadn’t even been a part of. Or talented footballer Godwin Lawson, 17, from Enfield, who was fatally stabbed trying to save his childhood friends from being attacked.
Or Rishmeet Singh, the 16-year-old who had fled to the UK from Afghanistan after the Taliban killed his father, only to be stabbed 15 times in 27 seconds in a case of mistaken identity. Or Anas Mezenner, 17, who was killed with a “Rambo-style” knife in Haringey two years ago during what he thought would be a “little scrap” over a friend’s mobile phone.
There are countless more examples I could cite of young people having their lives snuffed out – sometimes over nothing. Britain seems to be facing an epidemic of indiscriminate killings, in which lives that were taken are afforded no value at all by the perpetrators. The victims could have been anyone. But they are someone. They are someone’s son or someone’s daughter and they deserve to be remembered as much more than being in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
And now Elianne; a keen gymnast and cheerleader who reportedly died stepping in to defend her friend as she got off a bus in Croydon to go to lessons at Old Palace of John Whitgift, a private school.
This beautiful girl, who had dreams of becoming a lawyer, could have been any of our daughters: a bright young thing with her whole life ahead of her, cruelly extinguished in seconds.
As the horror of what happened began to emerge, I was ashamed to find myself uttering the following words to my 13-year-old son as I collected him from school: “Do not ever try to be a hero. At the first sign of trouble, run in the opposite direction.”
It’s not what I want to be teaching him. In an ideal world, I would be bringing him up to show courage and to stick up for his mates, but we now live in a world where other children wield samurai swords, zombie knives and machetes. My son boxes as a form of self-defence, but as I had to explain to him, there is simply no defending yourself against someone who does not value life.
How did Britain end up in a situation in which these horrifying crimes have become so common? Why is it that so many young people are being dragged into a life of violence and crime? Many will suspect that it is a failure of adulthood rather than childhood.
We know that Britain has a huge problem with family breakdown and a lack of male role models in young men’s lives, and yet little is ever done to address it. In 2019, a study of 60 vulnerable teenagers in South London found that nearly three quarters were not living with their fathers. In 2020, Dr Jackie Sebire, then assistant chief constable of Bedfordshire Police, said knife crime was being driven by absent fathers.
“It’s not only about public services, it’s absent fathers, absent capable guardians in the community, it’s lack of role models ... I don’t think we talk enough about those drivers around serious violence because it is easier to talk about drugs and social media. They do play a part, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not as simple as that.”
Of course she’s right, but there is now another dimension to this, which is the growing lack of respect for the police among young people. When I was a child, I lived in fear of the police. These days, officers appear to be openly mocked by youngsters, be it when they share viral videos of them trying to arrest people in front of a braying mob – or when they brag about their latest shoplifting “haul” on TikTok.
The police are to some extent responsible. Too much focus on unnecessary distractions such as policing speech online has diverted their attention away from real-life crimes like petty theft, anti-social behaviour and vandalism. Their seeming inability to catch the people who nick our bikes, steal our cars and burgle our homes – even when supplied with CCTV evidence – has eroded trust in police forces and respect for their officers.
This has contributed to a creeping sense of lawlessness about today’s Britain. From people being robbed of their Rolex watches in broad daylight and shops in Oxford Street being openly looted, to knife crimes like those perpetrated against the children mentioned in this column, day after day brings reports of wanton criminality, perpetrated without much fear of the consequences.
It certainly hasn’t helped that the crown court backlog in England and Wales remains at around 62,000 cases – as bad as it was during the pandemic. In London, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor, has wasted too much time on pet projects like Ulez rather than cutting violent crime and ridding the capital’s streets of lethal blades.
The police have not just lost their authority but also their confidence, and who can blame them? The slashing of police budgets in the 2010s, a hallmark of Theresa May’s tenure in the Home Office, has proved to be catastrophic. Many officers have been left demoralised by excessive scrutiny of their actions, be it their handling of Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil activists, the exercise of their stop and search powers or, in the most recent example, their policy on the use of firearms.
The fact that some armed officers felt they needed to hand back their weapons after a colleague was charged with murdering Chris Kaba, 24, who was shot last September, shows how little support the police feel they have.
I appreciate they have been rocked by a series of scandals, not least the appalling crimes committed by Wayne Couzens, but the bottom line is the police cannot have our backs if we don’t have theirs.
Right now, as you read this, there will be a number of dedicated police officers trying to help Elianne’s distraught family through this appalling tragedy. It is the responsibility of all the grown-ups in the room – not the children but the adults – to do much more to end this senseless carnage.