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VISITORS to London could be forgiven for thinking the place is going to hell in a handbasket. "Schoolgirl stabbed to death on her way home," screams the page one headline in today's Daily Mail, noting the girl who died in her school uniform was the 31st teen-age knife victim in Britain this year. Sixteen teens killed in what the Mail calls a "knife-crime epidemic" have died in London, including a young actor who appears in an upcoming Harry Potter film.
Meanwhile, there is continuing fall-out from the drunken chaos on the Tube last weekend. Sixteen people were arrested, seven Tube staff and two police officers were assaulted, six stations were closed and some trains taken out of service after hundreds of young people quaffing drinks ranging from lager to champagne turned the subway system into a raucous, rolling party.
The sorry state of Britain's young is a frequent topic of conversation among adults, apparently with good reason: surveys confirm that young Britons tend to engage in more risky behaviour, from heavy drinking to having sex at early ages, than their European peers. It is common for people to avoid riding public transport in the evening for fear of encountering drunk or violent youths.
The Economist puts some of this in perspective, noting that it is not so much the number but more the nature of violent attacks that is a worry.
From all this one might think that deaths by the blade were becoming more common. That isn't the case. Last year 258 people were killed by sharp instruments, a number that has barely changed since the turn of the millennium. As a proportion of total homicides (which have been rising slowly for decades), death by sharp instrument is no more frequent now than it was ten years ago, though knives remain Britain's favourite murder weapon. The British Crime Survey (BCS), an official annual questionnaire, suggests that violent crime has fallen dramatically in recent years. Yet people are increasingly worried about it.
And with reason. Violent crime may have fallen overall, but that is thanks to the halving of domestic violence and fighting among friends since 1997. Those falls hide an increase in violence at the hands of strangers, which has risen by 14% during the same period. And although murder is not much more common than it used to be, non-fatal attacks seem to be getting more serious.
London's new mayor, Boris Johnson, and police are right to make such issues a priority. These are the sort of headlines that, over time, can do real damage to a city's reputation. The effectiveness of current plans to tackle the knife-carrying fad among teens remains to be seen.
As for drunks on the Tube, there is more reason to be hopeful. The weekend bash was in fact prompted by Mr Johnson's order to end legal drinking on public transport (and was long overdue). It would have been convenient to blame the chaos, which occurred in the final hours before the alcohol ban took effect, on disorderly teens. Today we learned that at least some of the partying was organised by young City bankers who used Facebook, the social networking site, to draw people to the mass "drink-ins." With bankers' photos splashed in the press and, reportedly, careers possibly on the line, it seems likely that this particular group will not be a threat to passengers on public transport in future.