Acid attack-fear grips Britain – but is it justified?
A spate of high-profile acid attacks on the streets of London recently has gripped the public’s attention and dominated news headlines.
But how much do we really know about corrosive substances and the dangers they pose in the hands of criminals?
Anyone following the British media cannot help but have noticed a surge in attacks using acid in recent months. These incidents, sometimes leaving victims with life-changing physical injuries, would appear to be a horrifying escalation in street violence.
Although some have been motivated by robbery, gang feuds, or personal grudges, others seem almost random in their targeting of ordinary members of the public.
Aside from the obvious increased physical threat, acid attacks are adding another layer of psychological jitteriness to a capital already rocked by terrorism in recent months.
At this year’s Notting Hill Carnival, an unknown liquid was thrown over revellers in the street, sparking a panicked response as crowds attempted to flee. The identity of the substance is still unknown – but the fear that it was acid provoked an immediate and potentially-disastrous stampede from frightened carnival-goers.
To panic or not to panic?
But with all of the sensational news reports, talking heads and horrifying photographs of victims, are we being swept up in a panic which blows this menace completely out of proportion to its actual risk?
More to the point, are we letting fear get in the way of finding a sensible solution to this problem?
The term ‘acid’ is broad enough to incorporate everything from citric acid (found in lemon juice) and acetic acid (found in vinegar) to fluoroantimonic acid – a substance so corrosive it can only be contained in Teflon (it would dissolve a glass bottle as easily as it would your hand).
What this means, therefore, is that relatively harmless acids are grouped in the public’s consciousness with much more dangerous substances like sulphuric or hydrochloric acids.
In fact, the recent ‘acid attack scare’ could be better classed as a ‘corrosive substances scare’ with supermarket-available liquids like bleach (actually, a ‘base’ rather than an acid) regularly being employed as a weapon by criminals.
And this is why it is so difficult to combat.
An over-the-counter weapon
Bleach, caustic soda and other everyday chemicals still make formidable and difficult-to-detect weapons which can be purchased from any high-street supermarket or hardware store.
Their ubiquity – and breadth of legitimate uses – means restricting their sale completely is probably not feasible. However, the British Government has hinted at introducing legislation aimed at restricting sales to under-18 – meaning cleaning products could join other age-restricted items like alcohol, cigarettes and knives.
Another proposed solution has been to treat carrying corrosive substances with the same level of severity as carrying a knife – a crime which carries a prison sentence of up to four years.
In fact, the use of acid as an alternative to a knife among young criminal gangs in London and elsewhere highlight an unintended side effect of other legislation – namely, strict gun control laws.
In this respect, the fact that young thugs and others have enthusiastically adopted acid is a testament to how difficult it is to obtain a firearm on the black market for all but the most dedicated criminals.
Why are we seeing this increase now?
Well, crime, like terrorism, can unfortunately follow trends. Widespread media coverage is a great way of advertising a new method of menacing members of the public to would-be criminals who know it’s easier to conceal bleach in an empty soft-drink bottle than it is to risk being caught with a knife.
And in spite of appearing like a wholly modern phenomenon, it’s more of a throwback to an earlier time: acid attacks were a common part of life in British cities during the Victorian period, when sulphuric acid was first being manufactured.