The riots: non-threats, minorities and deterrence

A couple of language matters thrown up by the unfortunate events in England in August…

1. On Tuesday the 9th, Haroon Jahan and two other men were senselessly killed in Birmingham. The next day Haroon’s father, Tariq Jahan, said the memorable and affecting line:

“I lost my son – step forward if you want to lose your sons, otherwise calm down and go home.”

Apart from the extraordinary eloquence of Mr Jahan’s speech, grief-stricken as he clearly was, the other thing I noticed, not immediately, but the second time I heard it, was that it wasn’t meant as a threat, and didn’t come across as a threat, but it was certainly open to interpretation as a threat. Perhaps that was what was so remarkable: to turn words that in other circumstances would’ve been seen as a threat, into an earnest and heartfelt plea for peace. Rhetorically, it was quite a feat.

2. One afternoon, listening to Radio WM, I was struck by a caller’s use of the word “minority”. She said something along the lines that she understood that it was only the small minorities that were involved in the riots/looting. It occurred to me that since there is an important difference in meaning between “minority” and “minorities” it’s rather unfortunate that the two expressions are virtually the same and prone to confusion. I wonder of she was the only person who, hearing that only a “small minority” were involved, thought that meant that the ethnic minorities were responsible?

3. Finally, an interesting sentence from the report into the disturbances published today by the chief constable of West Midlands Police:

Very soon into Monday evening came the strategic and tactical reappraisal which led to the notion that the police response must be to maximise the number of lawful arrests in order to remove rioters from the streets and, critically, re-establish the sense of deterrence that for complex reasons seems to have been temporarily lost. (page 29)

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