White Feathers
Simon Baddeley

For years I've watched documentaries on TV about the heroism of those who fought in the two world wars and listened to the war poetry of such men as Wilfred Owen who died only days before Armistice. I myself was not born until 1942. While since then other countries have suffered unspeakable deprivation from wars and our few professional soldiers have served in conflicts overseas, I and millions of others in this country have enjoyed peace all our lives.

As a result I've been thinking how embarrassingly timid we are about urban crime. How those soldiers who died would have smiled at our trepidations. I can understand the anger of war veterans being directed, not only at criminals, but, at all those respectable citizens who have allowed their lives to be so influenced by their fear of crime. The worst that a mugger or psychopath can do to us--or worse, our children--is nothing to the horrors those men faced on the Somme, at Verdun, andin other savage battles generations ago, or indeed to the atrocities experienced by men, women and children in Yugoslavia or Sierra Leone today. Anyone who says otherwise lacks imagination--and, like a coward, sets themselves up to be constantly fearful.

Some of our generation should be offered white feathers for taking to their cars in "self-defence", for investing in semi-rural retreats, for barring their windows and filling their homes with surveillance technology, for over-protecting their children by never letting them play outdoors or travel unsupervised. By doing this they are creating another generation who will desert the pavements, parks, buses and trains and learn to cower indoors, while those of a predatory inclination have the freedom to roam our empty public spaces preying on those who cannot afford these choices.

This is not an argument for vigilantism. What I want is presence. My homey--Birmingham (UK)--has has become degraded because over 60% of those who work in the city do not choose to live in it. They depart en masse to their safe havens at 5 or 6pm. Though they may drive into town in secure vehicles to enjoy concerts, theatres and restaurants they do not contribute to the community life of the city. They travel in and out of town looking out through shut windows like goldfish. Sixty percent or more of those who work in Birmingham are not paying the council taxes needed to improve local services, yet how they grumble when asked to pay more to come into the cities in their cars.

Sixty percent or more of those who work in Birmingham have distanced themselves so far from those who reside in the city that they find it easy to perpetuate simplistic fantasies about the evil people who've turned the city into a jungle. When criminals are your neighbours it's less easy to demonise them. Dr Johnson wrote: "He that voluntarily continues ignorance, is guilty of all the crimes that ignorance produces; as to him that should extinguish the tapers of a lighthouse might justly be imputed the calamities of shipwrecks". This goes for all those journalists who help to fuel fear of city living, often because they too are suburbanites.

We who live in the city also hate crime but some of us refuse to be frightened off the streets by it. Our experience tells us that crimes are committed by people who are mostly desperate, trapped and marginalised by lack of education and jobs. Living in the city and walking through its public spaces gives us opportunities to separate the behaviour from the person. If that makes me a do-gooder its because I'm entitled to be. I don't run away in the face of the risks.

When you think about those men (and women) who fought and died in two world wars, you can see how craven it is to flee crime and hide inside one's house instead of working to build and make a community. Ordinary inner-city people might not use such a phrase, but their actions speak of their courage. Think of the business man or woman who keeps reopening their small shop despite successive robberies. Think of the old gent or old lady mugged several times who are "damned" if they'll stop going on the bus, or the woman who refuses to be frightened off walking home alone.

Come and live in the city you suburbanites! Work and live here. Pluck up your courage! Send your children to our schools. Bring your energy, intelligence and taxes and help the city to come alive! Travel on buses and trains! Cycle! Enjoy footpaths and towpaths! Let families parade in the city at night! Let young and old promenade city streets and parks! Let your children walk and cycle the school run and help cut the pollution and road danger that endangers them far more than crime! Resist your fears! None of these acts of reclaiming public space comes near the danger faced by all those young men who had to "go over the top" in our wars.

Simon Baddeley