The appalling murder of 11-year old Rhys Jones in Liverpool, an innocent victim apparently caught in the crossfire of a teenage gang war, has again focused attention on the alarming social collapse in many parts of the country. Other recent incidents, such as the shooting in Letchworth last week, indicate that the problem of gun crime may not now be limited to a small number of inner city areas which are running out of control. The availability of guns even to young teenagers is a shocking development.
Of course it is fair to point out, as David Aaronovitch does in today's Times, that there is no shortage of well-behaved youngsters, and that the picture of a Britain on the verge of anarchy is a travesty. Nevertheless there is no room for complacency. The Prime Minister clearly recognises this, although Michael Portillo is rightly critical of the government's response:
Brown promised "tougher enforcement", "a crackdown" and more police. "Where there is a need for new laws we will pass them," he blathered, as though murder were not a crime. Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, promised to quadruple the number of acceptable behaviour contracts, claiming they would nip disorder in the bud.
Brown is discovering that prime ministers are obliged to speak even when they have nothing sensible to say. Every ludicrous promise he makes adds to the pile of vacuous commitments given by his predecessor.
If tougher enforcement and cracking down were the answer, the morgues would not now be receiving the shot and knifed corpses of murdered boys. Governments have been cracking down since time immemorial. If 25,000 acceptable behaviour contracts have failed to do the trick, 100,000 will not secure the breakthrough...
There is a strategic danger for Brown in feeling obliged to say silly things on serious subjects. He has claimed to be more honest and transparent than Tony Blair. To a surprising extent the media have accepted that at face value and this is a key reason why his first two months have gone so well.
But his reaction to the killings is not honest. "Cracking down" is beside the point. A straight answer might be that the government can do nothing. Or that the problem is so deeply rooted in modern political and popular culture that society needs to be overhauled, a painful process in which government can play an important but limited role.
This last point is crucial. We are now well past the stage where law enforcement alone can contain the downward spiral of social collapse that is increasingly evident in some parts of the country, and some sections of the community. Welfare reform and the education system will also play a vital part. The current tax system rewards families which break up at the expense of those that stay together: it must be changed. In short, what is required is wholesale cultural renewal: personal and civic responsibility must be encouraged, families must be supported, communities must be rebuilt. It should be obvious that there are no quick fixes here. The government does nobody any favours by pretending otherwise.