Keep calm and carry on

A grieving father who calls for calm. A collection for an 89-year-old barber whose shop was ransacked. The spontaneous "neighborhood watch" groups springing up all over the country to protect their property and loved ones in the absence of the police.

These are the inspiring images of the last 24 hours after four consecutive nights of rioting across the U.K. They were in contrast to the pictures of burning buildings where youths trashed their own communities. The sight of a wounded young Malaysian student, who was robbed after youths pretended to comfort him, prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to denounce Britain’s “sick” society.

Theories abound as to why London was caught up in midsummer madness after the police killing of a young black man in a taxi as he was being followed by the drugs squad. One side blames the sweeping budget cuts ushered in by the coalition government. Another points an accusing finger at the education system, where teachers no longer command respect, and at the parents who cannot control their children. You can be sure that if the police had cracked down hard on the first night of protests last Saturday they would have been blamed. As it is, they are accused of laxity and of failing to protect the population — their prime duty — during the worst riots in Britain in a generation.

All of the above theories probably have a grain of truth. But I can assure you, having answered questions from European listeners on a radio program on Tuesday, that the rioting was not Islamist, it was not manipulated by the extreme right and it was not anti-government. It had nothing to do with immigration policy. Indeed, for the most part it was not anti-police. The shocking arson attacks and lootings on the high street, carried out by black youths and white girls, men and boys, were opportunistic and had nothing to do with last week’s shooting of Mark Duggan. They did it because they thought they could get away with it. They were caught on camera trying on the clothes in stores to find the right size, as they piled their shopping carts high with TVs.

As the 800 people who have been arrested are processed by the courts we will find out a lot more.

Last night, though, I was reminded of the protesters in Tahrir Square. When President Hosni Mubarak pulled the police from the streets and sent prison guards home, Egyptians reclaimed the streets to protect their property from the looters. That is what happened across England last night. Tariq Jahan, a Birmingham man whose son was deliberately targeted by a hit-and-run driver as he protected a gas station with about 80 others, spoke movingly and with dignity as he urged people to “calm down and go home.”

But there was one big difference with Tahrir Square. In Egypt, they overthrew a government. In England, they overthrew cars.