All across London, the last few days have been dominated by a particular kind of conversation. Stuck at Victoria station on Monday night, where crowds massed as service operators struggled to cope with station closures along suburban lines, a man in a suit looked up from his phone and told his friend, ‘They’ve hit Croydon’. Soho was largely deserted on Tuesday night, where an under-worked bartender stoically admitted, ‘Everyone’s afraid of travelling around’. On Wednesday, in a supermarket in Swiss Cottage, a member of staff asked the lady she was serving, ‘Don’t they understand that people are getting hurt?’

All across London, people are talking about riots, and wondering what the cause is. On the rolling news coverage, remarkable pictures of blazing buildings and police formations have been accompanied by a parade of talking heads, who decry failures in policy and policing, criticise declining standards and values, and blame parents for exercising too little control over their children. Yet for all those who offer reasons, there are many more to whom the recent unrest appears in most cases simply to be mindless, shapeless violence.

For all our speculation, however, it would be disingenuous for the majority of us to claim a detailed understanding of what is happening in the suburbs of the city. After the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan on August 4th and his family’s subsequent peaceful protest at Tottenham Police Station, it seemed that the initial local disturbances on Saturday were motivated by resentment and mistrust of the police. The widespread looting of the following days and the relative lack of confrontation between the police and the public, however, suggest a much less focused discontent than that which fuelled running skirmishes in the Brixton Riots 30 years ago.

Similarly, to portray this unrest as a result of any specific socio-economic trend would be ignorant of the complexity of modern British society. It is not a single loose thread which has caused public order to unravel over the last few days. The deficiency of government services, both before and after austerity measures, the pain of a drawn-out economic downturn, and the apparent rise of family dysfunction are all plausible aggravating factors. But their influence on the lives and decisions of those involved in the violence are so obscure that, without a radically more thorough deconstruction, there is a danger of recklessly stereotyping a variety of motivations according to our own prejudices or agendas.

That deconstruction must take place in the coming weeks and months, but an immediate response is also necessary. The only thing which is clear at this stage about the people involved is that, for whatever reasons, they are willing to engage in anti-social behaviour on an alarming scale.

The reaction now should be one of empathy but not sympathy. The acts which have taken place are criminal, and without doubt many of those responsible will be identified through CCTV. Their sentences should be proportional to the specifics of their crime: the judiciary must resist any temptation to hand down exemplary punishments. Being interviewed by the BBC on Tuesday, Professor Gus John reminded viewers that ‘whatever damage they may cause, they are the losers’. The courts will hear their cases, and must do so justly and without malice for the social dilemma they represent.

While justice is dispensed and the political post-mortem commences, the risk now is that popular opinion will accelerate the social divide which has already reached such a disturbing level. Many Londoners who, in their stunned chatter, struggled to understand the events of the week have since abandoned any empathy. The photograph of Hayley Miller wearing a shirt which read ‘LOOTERS ARE SCUM’ was widely published in the papers. Liz Pilgrim, whose shop in Ealing was looted, was frequently featured on the BBC denouncing those responsible as ‘feral rats’. As though judicial sentence were not vindictive enough for many, on the government’s e-petition website, the call for anyone convicted of a crime related to the riots to be stripped of benefits has now passed the threshold of 100,000 signatures required for consideration in parliament, more than four times as many as any of the other long-standing grievances which have already been aired there.

These are opinions and measures which will only further alienate a group who are already far from the reach of politics and national debate. If we want to avoid a repeat of the violence witnessed this week, our only option is to promise a thorough consideration of how we can make people’s lives better and make our society more cohesive. If, instead, we cling to the divisive notions of good and evil, if we dismiss citizens as savages, if we seek to punish instead of to rehabilitate, then the coming decades will be dark times indeed. The events of this week offer an opportunity to meet head-on a problem which is too often addressed in fractions. Our response now must be to grasp it.