The riots which have for the past few days wreaked havoc in London have sent shock waves through the United Kingdom and even beyond it. For a city which has been preparing assiduously for next year's Olympics, an event it means to showcase to people around the world, these troubles could not have come at a worse time. Sparked by the killing of a young man by police last week in the city's Tottenham area, the riots spilled over into wider areas over the weekend and effectively introduced a surreal atmosphere all around.
The images coming out of the rioting have been deeply disturbing. Gangs of young men have cheerfully gone around setting cars and buses and even rubbish bins alight before setting fire to shops and warehouses. The picture has been a common one in the east, north and south of London, with hooded youths caught on camera walking away with looted goods. A stretched police department together with a harried fire service have naturally not proved effective in containing the crisis. Prime Minister Cameron, Home Secretary Theresa May and London Mayor Boris Johnson have all cut their holidays short and returned home to deal with the situation.
The riots are perhaps a sign of the deep malaise which runs through British society in these difficult economic times, with jobs being lost and cuts being mulled in significant areas of the public sector. And yet what has been happening over the past few days is a clear picture of unalloyed lawlessness that cannot be excused. That is the message the authorities have been giving out. It must now be followed by sharp, effective action. Unless the rioters are roped in by the law, London will remain in a state of vulnerability. It will be an image that cannot sit well with the heritage of this historically famous city.