A darker place
Dear international reader. Most likely, you think Australia is a safe place. Probably, when you think of us you imagine cute-looking hopping animals (that would be kangaroos) or fluffy, cuddly bears (that would be koalas, which of course are not really bears). I doubt you imagine stabbings in the school yard or bashings of international students. But Australia is looking more and more like the United States these days.
I’ve been pondering the rise in violence in Australia, particularly what seems to be a knife culture amongst school kids and youth. Just last week, we heard of the sickening attack on a 12-year old school kid, Elliot Fletcher, in a Brisbane schoolyard. He was stabbed in the chest and died within minutes. As if this wasn’t bad enough, we then learn that a 13-year old boy from the same school allegedly carried out the attack and has been charged with murder. Last month, an Indian student was attacked and stabbed to death on the streets of Melbourne. There have been numerous attacks on Indians, which has caused some hysteria within Indian media and could threaten bilateral ties between Australia and India.
We also heard this week of Trinity Bates, an 8-year old girl abducted from her Queensland home and murdered. Her body was dumped in a drain just 50 metres from her home. A 19-year old has been charged and is “assisting police with their enquiries” (which is police talk for “we got you mate and we’re going to grill you”). Then there was the abduction and sexual assault of an 8-year old girl in Sydney allegedly by a 20-year old male.
And then we get to the really, really sick and twisted part: both Trinity Bates and Elliot Fletcher had Facebook pages set up as a tribute to their lives. What happened? Sickos and whackos flocked to the pages and posted distressing, violent scenes of murder, race-hate, bestiality and pornography. Personally, I think Facebook needs to take a stand here and stop pages from being vandalised. (UPDATE 26/2 seems Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, feels the same and has written to Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook). And what the hell is in the minds of sickos who post such distressing material on a page dedicated to the life of a poor kid brutally snatched from life? Is there no thought for the grief of family and friends? Obviously, not.
Only yesterday, I witnessed two women (probably in their 40s) having a huge public cat fight on my train over a seat. Swear words were uttered. Threats were made. A handbag was thrown around the carriage. I thought they were two brawny fist fighters rather than two ladies (and I use that term loosely). The train had to be stopped and police hauled their assess off.
Let me pause here and say: every society has violence. Every society has sickos and whackos. Every society has creepy people who attack, assault or murder young kids. Australia is not immune to any of this. But seems to me that there has been a sharp increase in public violence in recent years, along with a sharp increase in the severity of violence.
Let’s look at some illustrative statistics.
- Victoria has witnessed a 20% increase of assaults in the public domain in the last 5 years.
- an international study of early adolescence has found that Australian 13-year olds are more likely to be violent than their American counterparts.
- people in Perth seem to like slugging it out on public buses – there’s been a 30% increase in assaults on buses over the last year.
- school-based violence seems to have risen dramatically in New South Wales – serious incidents involving assault, weapons possession, threats or drugs are up 90%.
- the Northern Territory had a 15% spike in assaults during 2009.
The graph below, from the Australian Institute of Criminology, shows the upward trend in assaults (including sexual assault) in Australia from 1995 to 2007:
The trend in assaults shows an average growth of 5% each year from 1995 to 2007, four times the annual growth of the Australian population in the same period. Disturbing.
Now, I don’t think Australians need to become hermits and lock ourselves up in our homes, afraid to venture out for fear of being the victim of public violence. But I do think we need to do some cold, hard examining of what’s going on in our society.
I have my own views. They may be right. They be wrong. But having lived in Australia all my life, I would tell you that the reasons for the increasing violence are the following:
- Australia’s binge-drinking culture. When I was growing up, pubs used to shut at 6.00pm on weekdays I think and led to the six o’clock swill ie when workers used to rush to the pub to down a beer or two before heading off home. I don’t recall pubs being open on Sundays and I think on Saturdays they could only stay open until 10.00pm. But now we have 24-hour pubs (although there have been some mutterings about 2.00am closing times and increasing the drinking age to 21 years in an effort to curb alcohol-fueled violence). And it seems to have become acceptable for youths to get as drunk as possible, especially during Schoolies Week. Alcohol abuse is widespread across all levels of society. Let’s face it: Australia has a love affair with alcohol. We have bottle shops galore and advertising that links sport with drinking, Of course, there’s another question to ask here: why is there a binge-drinking culture in Australia? What’s behind it?
- 24/7 lifestyle, which brings people out more into public spaces and the growth of a night-time economy in Australia. Again, when I was growing up Sunday was a pretty boring day – nothing was open – and on Saturdays shops shut at 1.00pm. I well remember my father stressing out about getting to the hardware store before 1.00pm on Saturday. And there was no Thursday late-night shopping. Now, Australia has a civic cosmopolitanism, characterised by shopping centres open on the weekend as well as week days; late-night shopping on Thursdays (in NSW); more people living in inner-city areas out and about dining in cafes and restaurants; bars and clubs invitingly open. This of course must lead to more opportunities for encounters with strangers and if you couple this with alcohol consumed, more opportunities for tempers to ignite.
- Drug use. Illicit drug use is on the rise amongst baby boomers, especially ecstasy and amphetamines. But it’s not just older dudes indulging in drugs. Statistics show that the incidence of possession or use of ecstasy and cocaine across the board has jumped by 50% and 40% respectively over the past two to three years. There seems to be an epidemic of prescription drug use with people popping painkillers or injecting oxycodone and kids as young as 13-years old are taking steroids because they want a buff bod like celebrity sports people. So if you’re high on whacky tobaccy or having psychedelic dreams or suffering from roid rage – chances are higher that violent assaults or attacks will occur.
- The decline of civility, respect and communality. I’ve blogged about the decline of civility before. I guess this is why you end up with two “ladies” having an embarrassing public cat fight on a train. But there’s also a decline in respect and just plain niceness in contemporary society. Robert Putnam of course wrote about our fragmented society (in Bowling Alone) and how we have become a society disconnected from family, friends and neighbours. And I think the rise of extreme individualism, particularly in the late 20th Century, can be linked to the age of mass-produced American culture we’re increasingly living in, which sees us identifying and defining ourselves through the brands and products we buy.
I admit I’m puzzled about Australia at the moment. It’s not the place I grew up in but I realise things move on, things change. There are some deep issues at play here that I haven’t even touched on eg the effects of visual violence on kids from TV shows and movies; the question of whether or not Australia has been successful in integrating our many immigrants.
What do you think is going on? Have you seen a rise in public violence in your own country?