“...You men, you beasts, That quench the fire of your pernicious rage With purple fountains issuing from your veins, On pain of torture, from those bloody hands Throw your mistempered weapons to the ground And hear the sentence of your moved prince. Three civil brawls, bred of an airy word...''
PRINCE ESCALUS, ROMEO AND JULIET, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.
All italicised quotes are from the same play.
Some years ago, I used to work for a company that published a famous 'men's' magazine. Although the magazine's official readership figures placed the reader in his early twenties, and it was thus allowed to carry alcohol advertising, in reality we knew that the magazine primarily appealed to youths in their mid-to late-teens, who handed over their sticky pound coins to the newsagent each month, seduced not by the gung-ho articles written by middle-class graduates roughing it on expenses, but by the ever-increasing numbers of pages featuring photo-shopped, almost-naked women and the equally-thumbed over pages of other glossy desirables: mostly gadgets and games to parade as a show of alpha-male status.
I was deeply uncomfortable with that particular magazine but I kept quiet, privately despised the 'readers' and frequently myself, and got on with the job, which at the time required me to come up with tempting and creative advertising strategies which pushed the psychological buttons that would jerk an 18-24 male audience into profligately spunking their cash. I was paid pretty decent money in those days to position advertisers' products as 'cool' by producing and selling creative work across a variety of music and lifestyle platforms. Over time I grew quite adept at it. But I never felt good about it, ever.
The final straw came when I opened the men's magazine one day, to see an array of gleaming vicious knives photographed and laid out across the page as that month's must-have objects of desire. The previous issue it had been expensive cameras. The page opposite the feature was usually popular with advertisers. Aghast, I showed it to some of my colleagues.
Hardened as they were to the ever-increasing idiocies of the editorial policy, even they were shocked. I went to my boss. He was more sanguine.
'It's just a blokey thing. Blokes like looking at knives. Knives are cool.'
' Knives kill
people. 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?'
He shrugged. 'All right, it's a bit near the knuckle. But it's the mag's job to be controversial'
I walked away, fuming and went to see the editor. He came up with the same weak line about knives being cool to look at and beautiful objects and added, without meeting my eyes, that 'anyway, blokes need them for fishing and stuff'.
I lost it with him. He looked genuinely surprised. Or he pretended to be. He did back down, and agree that the magazine would not do it again.
'It's a bit bloody late now', I hissed, as I walked out of his office.
I left the company a few months later. As I walked out the door for the last time, I felt relief, and shame.
This week, five young people were stabbed
to death within a day. I thought again of that magazine feature, and I wanted to cry. The horrible fact is that the editor and my boss were right. Knives are cool. And if you have one, it is almost impossible not to want to touch it and to show it off, and to use it. When you hold a sharp, deadly knife, you feel an intoxicating rush of power.
My ex-boyfriend once made me a knife and a sheath as a gift, and to show off his skills he had learned from his brother, an armourer who makes weapons for film props and historical demonstrations. The knife he gave me is a five inch razor-sharp dagger, heavy, thick - it was made by adapting a metal file used to pare down horses hooves - and it fits perfectly into my hand. It is seductive. I keep it locked away, but 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 fifteen-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 can remember what it felt like to have no power at all, to have nobody listening, to be afraid. 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 can remember how when 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 onto 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 dead. Sometimes, especially at this time of year, I remember; I play back what happened, and I think, if I'd had that knife to hand when that seventeen year old, high on his own rage and strength and God-knows-what-else came at me, could I have used my blade on him?
I think it is possible that I could have flown at him ( 'and fire-eyed fury be my conduct now
' Romeo says, grabbing his weapon in a rage and setting off to kill his wife's cousin - who has just killed his best friend). Thundering with adrenalin and outrage, terrified beyond measure, armed with my lovely, terrible knife, would my reaction have been the other one of the three 'Crisis-reaction 'F's - 'Fight-back' -
instead of 'Freeze' or 'Flee'?
I'm glad I will never know.
There is a secret arms race going on in our schools and streets and lives are being lost because of it. 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 and bullying, the fatal human trait of aggression and self-aggrandisement, the lust we have for more territory, possessions and power is reported daily on our TV screens. And we wonder that youngsters are gripped by the same dark desires, that the same macho strutting and desire for vengeance, and - bitter irony - respect - are played out on street corners, parks and playgrounds as well as in parliaments and politicians offices? 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 feel threatened, they are more likely to lash out - and when they 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 emnity
What can we do? In Romeo and Juliet,
where violence runs as a taut thread throughout the play, Prince Escalus threatens those fighting in yet another bloody, pointless brawl with 'pain of torture'; meeting violence with violence, pain with pain. Tory politicians this week suggested mandatory prison sentences for those caught carrying knives. Labour dismissed it as unworkable. The prisons are full as it is. Parenting programmes, fresh police powers, and shock warnings to youngsters are mooted instead by Jacqui Smith, 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, the desire to protect ourselves from violence by threatening worse violence. Our duplicity, our fragility, our posturing, our desire for vengeance, our stupidly comforting delusion that we can be safe only by being harder and stronger and more fearsome than our 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?
Labels: knife crime