R-e-s-p-e-c-t, find out what it means to England

Jean Wasley always knew when the neighbors were about to go on the rampage.

"You'd hear him throw his dinner at the wall," she says, recalling life in a housing development, or estate, on the Isle of Wight, near Portsmouth. "After that it would all start, the shouting and banging."

At times like these, the neighborhood would hold its breath. "It just takes one family like that to ruin the whole estate," the pensioner adds. "It went on for years."

Now, however, it seems Prime Minister Tony Blair is putting his foot down. He says antisocial behavior - the verbal abuse, physical intimidation, nocturnal din, and graffiti that blights many British neighborhoods - is one of the top problems facing the country. To the chagrin of some here, restoring "respect" is now Blair's key domestic priority for his third term.

"What lies at the heart of this behavior is a lack of respect for values that almost everyone in this country shares - consideration for others, a recognition that we all have responsibilities as well as rights, civility, and good manners," he said earlier this month as he unveiled his "Respect Agenda."

Yet not everyone sees the argument in such black-and-white terms. Despite media hysteria about a growing hooligan culture and a steady flow of cases of mindless violence, some academics wonder if behavior in Britain truly is deteriorating.

Others fear the ill-defined nature of yet another abstract government battle, like the wars on drugs and poverty. The targets in this new "war on terrors" are "problem" families and gangs of youths in hooded sweatshirts. But legal experts are concerned that new punishments dreamed up by the government bypass due process of law.

For example, Blair has already introduced a series of on-the-spot penalties, including antisocial behavior orders (ASBOs - a type of injunction), curfews, parenting orders for those with unruly children, and fines. At one point, Blair even wanted to enable police to march troublemakers to ATMs to pay cash penalties there and then.

It doesn't stop there. Earlier this month, there was a volley of new proposals many of which - if approved by Parliament - would give police and local authorities special powers that circumvent the criminal justice system.

Included among them are proposals to evict persistent offenders from their homes, to send problem families into 'sin-bins' for three months' rehabilitation, and to withhold state benefits from those who refuse to join programs designed to support them.

The prime minister admits that many of these powers reverse the "burden of proof," punishing an offender and challenging him to come to court to prove his innocence. But he says it's justified because too many petty crimes would otherwise go unpunished.

Lee Bridges, a professor of law at Warwick University, is unsettled by the legal development.

"The government strategy towards the criminal justice system is increasingly one of circumventing it," he says. "The government no longer believes in the burden of proof or in presumption of innocence."

Yet in some parts of the country, the strategy does appear to be working. Take ASBOs, which require that an individual desist from his or her troublemaking. Failure to do so can bring a jail sentence. Since ASBOs were introduced seven years ago, some 6,500 have been issued.

For Violet Roberts, a resident of Meden Vale in central England, an ASBO slapped on her neighbors - a mother and two sons - has made all the difference. For three months last year, she and her husband, Stanley, were woken regularly at night by the noise of power tools, parties, mischievous phone calls, and all kinds of rowdy backyard behavior, including a large bin full of aerosols being ignited.

"I've lived in this house 40 years," Ms. Roberts says, "and I've had some lovely neighbors, but you wouldn't believe the wreck it is now - broken windows, lights on all night."

"But since they had the ASBO we've been able to sleep again at night," she adds.

Blair has stepped up his "war on terrors" at a timewhen a majority of Britons feel that petty crime and antisocial behavior is getting out of hand. In a poll last week, 64 percent of people said the streets had become less safe since Labor came to power in 1997. A majority also said his measures hitherto were not enough to turn the situation around.

The concern over law and order has turned the conventional political dialectic of left and right on its head; instead, political and public opinion is subdividing into two rather different camps: social authoritarians and social liberals.

Much of Blair's program (including a ban on fox-hunting, a clampdown on smoking, plans for ID cards, and far more extensive video surveillance) puts him in the authoritarian camp, where he believes the broad swath of public sympathy lies.

But some, like A.C. Grayling, a British philosophy professor, columnist, and broadcaster, says "respect" may not be quite the right concept to revive, given its connotation with blind subjugation to anyone in authority. "If you automatically respect the people above you in a hierarchy, you tend not to criticize them. So it can be a bad thing."

Still, he says, British society may not be any coarser than in the past. Young men have always had a tendency for mischief, he points out, even if rosy views of the past may not recall it.

"This is as old as history," Mr. Grayling says. "If anything, life at the beginning of the 21st century is considerably better than it was 150 years ago, when it was a lot rougher. It often happens that as things get better in a society so our anxiety increases."

He says that the vast majority of Britons remain decent and civilized. "Think about the response to the July 7 bombings, when thousands of people rushed to the rescue. The whole of society was up in arms."

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