Society needs to get an urgent grip of the underlying causes of knife crime, says Joseph Kelly

The dreadful killing of 15-year-old Elianne Andam, who was stabbed in the neck with a kitchen knife on her way to school, has not only shocked the south Croydon community where it happened, but the nation as a whole. Elianne was one of 15 young people to lose their lives on the streets of London so far this year alone, in what seems to most people to be a worrying escalation in random acts of brutality involving young people.

Before we go any further, it’s worth noting a few statistics about knife crime: The number of knife or sharp instrument offences recorded by the police in London rose to approximately 12,786 in 2022/23, compared with 11,122 in the previous year. Across England and Wales generally there has been a 75% increase in knife crimes since 2013, with the police recording 50,489 knife or sharp instrument offences in the last 12 months alone. Last year there were 282 knife-related murders in England and Wales, the highest figure since 1946.

In the case of this week’s tragedy, a 17-year-old boy has been charged with the murder of Elianne Andam, which effectively curtails speculation about the reasons for this senseless killing. Earlier newspaper reports had intimated that the 17 year old had tried to give flowers to an ex-girfiend as she got off the school bus, and Elianne was fatally stabbed as she tried to intervene and protect the girl.

Whatever did occur, a family’s peace and hopes have been shattered forever in a momentary event that that seems to have all the hallmarks of so many such crimes – an innocent person being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It hardly seems possible that the country is still having exactly the same conversation it had 30 years ago when it was learnt that 18 year old Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death in another south London street, after he and a friend changed their regular bus route home and ran into a gang of youths.

Just a year later, 12 year old Nikki Conroy was stabbed to death by a mentally unstable intruder who had broken into her Middlesbrough school, and in 1995 Irish school headmaster Philip Lawrence was stabbed fatally outside the gates of his Catholic secondary school in London’s Maida Vale when he tried to defend a pupil who was being attacked by a gang. Thus started a long, painfully still unresolved public debate about the nature and remedies for the growing scourge of knife crime.

All too often, when the cause of such a crime is established – be it racism, insanity, revenge or argument – the conclusion serves not only as the motive, but as the explanation, especially when society isn’t anxious to confront the more profound questions that such crimes pose.

Every individual murder will have its explanation, but the seemingly growing inclination to fatal violence urgently warrants a far deeper enquiry.

At its most simple level, violent crime has been with us since the dawn of humanity, and was one the first remembered actions of mankind after the Fall. It comes down to us with the imprint of Cain, making it one of the earliest and most reviled of human deviances, and the second mortal sin committed in the human condition. This also makes it one of the hardest human traits to correct, as countless centuries of altercations have only found their ultimate resolution in the taking of life.

Murder as a means of solving differences or disputes is not only inhuman and uncivilised, but it’s particularly inefficient and negative in terms of resolution and evolution. Whether it’s a single murder or wholesale warfare, we humans still seem unable to learn the obvious lesson that the taking of another’s life only leads to further recriminations, untold misery and even more bloodshed.

Whilst it might seem anathema to us, our neighbour clearly doesn’t necessarily share our revulsion for the taking of another human life, even in the most trivial of circumstances. Remedies to such human aberrations have varied over the centuries, but the default position has tended to be that of Leviticus 24:19-21 – ‘an eye for an eye’ – and thus the remedy for taking one life has been to take another in reparation. It took us until 1965 to repeal that lunacy. The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 recognised that there needed to be a better dissuasion for murder than execution, but legislation has struggled since to build a society where every human life has an equal and inviolate value. In fact, all the signs are that human life has continued to become devalued, and it’s unlikely that actions such as the restoration of the death penalty for murder would have any positive impact at all.

One only has to look at the nature of the most recent murders in society to recognise that the perpetrators bear no awareness of the seriousness of their actions, nor are they the least bit concerned about even the most severe consequences. Clearly something more fundamental has gone wrong with the human condition.

Whilst it’s not helpful to paint a picture of a country where walking the streets is a profound danger, there is clearly something deteriorating – even if such encounters and tragedies are thankfully still exceptionally rare.

Unfortunately, knife crime in particular presents profound challenges to both the criminologist and the social reformer, and we really don’t seem to have made very much progress in resolving the problem. Perhaps this is because society still tends to see knife crime as an intermediary act of violence sitting somewhere in between physical assault and shooting. This underestimation of its seriousness has given rise to numerous well-meaning strategies based on the flawed premis that perpetrators are principally delinquent teenagers requiring a modicum of social intervention and rehabilitation to correct their behaviour.

To make matters worse, a commonly-heard commitment (especially from legislators) to become ever more ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ has the reverse effect of exacerbating the fear, exclusion and discrimination that leads to many such crimes in the first place. Coming down hard on knife crime may seem like a popular response, but there is little or no evidence that more vigilant policing, Knife Crime Prevention Orders and heavier sentencing have any impact on an individual carry a knife with possible intent to use it.

A more productive approach would be to build recognition – amongst young people in particular – that knife crime is a uniquely brutal, primitive and invasive act of violence against another human person that has no place in a modern, civil democracy.

Most knife crime begins with the fear that carrying a personal weapon is necessary in a society where others may be doing the same. Sadly this isn’t a misconception, and adults in particular need to wake up to the fact that knife-carrying amongst young people is far more common and widespread than we’d like to acknowledge, and the threat of prison does absolutely nothing to stop this.

Adult society also needs to accept culpability for creating landscapes in which random and inconsequential violent behaviour has become heavily normalised. It’s a tragic irony that it’s today’s older generations – many of whom invented, built and marketed mass media, the internet and its connected devices – are those who are complaining the loudest about the impact of such developments on subsequent generations.

Any parent who has looked over the shoulder of a teenager playing Call of DutyAssassin’s Creed or Grand Theft Auto will know that such global cult activities aren’t exactly teaching young people about the value of building a better society and the individual worth of the human person.

It needs to be remembered that young people are generally the product of what they have been given by those who went before, and rarely what they have created for themselves.

This also extends to the home and its circumstances, another area into which social engineers are often reluctant to tread – for fear of being seen as defining knife crime as a class or social nuanced phenomenon. In fact, evidence-based research has demonstrated unequivocally that domestic violence and adverse childhood experiences are one of the main drivers of knife crime, and a year-on-year increase in reported incidents of violence in the home is a worrying indicator of future risk. Unemployment – itself a profound disruptor of home life – is also a recognised driver of knife-related crimes, so it would be helpful if we began to see the carrying of a weapon not as a distinct problem of itself, but as the continuation of a path already marked by violence of varying types.

Sadly, given the present social preoccupation with lauding diversity of circumstance, identity, self-defined morality and relativism, it’s probably going to take some time before society finally comes round to the conclusion that we Christians have always known – a stable, loving family is the foundation of a stable, caring society and the disruption of this unit is the root cause of most subsequent social disorders.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian.