When to ‘have a go’.

Yesterday, Saturday 11th May 2008, a 16-year-old boy, Jimmy Mizen, was murdered in a bakery shop in Lee, Lewisham, south-east London. He had turned 16 the day before, and this was his first day at work. I did not know him or his family, but this killing feels personal, because it took place within a seven minute walk from my home and less than 100 yards from Lee Railway Station, which my wife and I use every day to get into and back from work. I have never been inside that bakery shop, but my seventeen year old son knows it well. His school is just around the corner and according to him the people there are nice and make great sandwiches.

Judging from the available reports, this was a random act of violence. No gangs, drugs or personal grudges appear to be involved. The suspect, a teenage boy who is still at large, had become aggravated at being asked to leave the shop and had smashed the shop window. Jimmy, acting as a good and responsible citizen, intervened to try and calm the situation and paid for it with his life.

This senseless death brings on a sense of sadness and futility – even tears in heaven won’t help dry the tears of those left behind. It also creates a dilemma. How do I advise my son – a strapping 17-year old with a strong sense of right and wrong – to act if he finds himself in a situation similar to that faced by Jimmy Mizen? His instinct would be to intervene to calm things down or to help the victims.

One comes on an almost daily basis across situations where some injustice is perpetrated or some outrage committed. Old people, visibly pregnant women and the disabled get shoved aside by able-bodied louts and loutettes trying to grab a seat on the train, the tube or the Docklands Light Railway, or to expedite their exit from or entry to the carriage by a second or so. Groups of big teenagers try to extort or steal money or valuables from smaller kids. Drunks engage in abusive or threatening behaviour or molest fellow passengers on public transport or on the street. Ill-mannered pigs throw garbage in the street or in someone else’s garden. Racial abuse escalates into shoving and pushing around and worse. Ticket collectors on the DLR get abused and assaulted by fare dodgers. A young man races down a shopping centre with a handbag obviously not his own, with a woman in hot pursuit yelling ‘stop thief’. Screams for help from some dark alley or wasteland.

I am sure most of those who read this have their own list of personally witnessed offensive and criminal behaviour. “Notify the police” is a cop out (pun intended) in most of these situations. Even when the forces of the law are willing to stir themselves for the kind of contingencies listed above, they will almost surely arrive too late to do any good. “Round up reinforcements and jointly have a go” can be useful advice. There is safety in numbers, and all but the most out of his gourd miscreant is likely to tone down and back off when faced with a posse.

But often you will find yourself in a situation where either you are the only bystander or your fellow-citizens act like the villagers in High Noon and put their personal safety first. When do you cross the line between good citizenship and reckless self-endangerment? It’s tough enough to make these choices for yourself, but what advice do you give your seventeen year old? “Be like Marshall Will Kane”? “Just trust your judgment”? “Don’t do anything rash or foolish”?

Stop the world, I want to get off!

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website