Acid Attack on American Students in France Shows a Disturbing Trend

Acid attacks are rising in Europe, with the most recent involving four Boston College students at a French subway station. The Boston Globe reported that a woman with a psychiatric history attacked the four girls. A spokeswoman for the police prefecture in Marseille told The New York Times, “nothing suggests that this was a terrorist attack.”

The women did not sustain serious injuries in the event, which bears similarities to many that have occurred across the world. Last month, police apprehended a teenager for hurling three bottles of acid at a café in Paris, The Daily Beast reported. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

The Metropolitan Police in London reported that 454 acid attacks took place in that city in 2016. That’s up from 261 in 2015 and almost triple the number reported in 2012. Between 2010-2016, 1,805 acid attacks occurred, and the reason why might surprise you.

Crackdowns on knives and guns lead criminals elsewhere

Knife and gun laws tightened in the UK, potentially leading to a rise in acid attacks | Scott Barbour/Getty Images

The Guardian said police cracking down on knives and gun violence led to the increase. Dr Simon Harding, a criminologist at Middlesex University, called the rise “genuinely scary,” according to The Guardian. “The rise [in the number of attacks] is partly due to the fact some young people are switching to acid as there is a clampdown on knives and guns,” Harding said. “It’s permitted to carry bleach, for example.”

Starting in 2015, the London “Shield” scheme began cracking down on violent offenses, The Evening Standard reported. The scheme includes punishment for all gang members if one of them commits a crime. About 200 gangs operate in London, claiming responsibility for 20% of all violent crime there.

The rise in acid attacks also coincided with a crackdown on weapons, including the “two strikes” rule. That initiative requires a minimum sentence of six months for people convicted of carrying a knife for the second time. The availability of acid doesn’t help deter criminals, either.

Lax regulations make acid readily available

A display at a London hardware store, many of which sell acid-based products | Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

Simon Laurence, chief superintendent for the Hackney borough in London, said retailers don’t have to restrict or question acid purchases. He asked storekeepers to take social and moral responsibility, but even common household cleaners are used in these types of attacks.

Jaf Shah, from the London charity Acid Survivors Trust International told the BBC the phenomenon dates back to the Victorian times in Britain, but said the recent increase shocks him. “The recent spike in attacks means the UK has the highest number of reported acid attacks per capita in the world,” he said. He and others call for sales volume regulations, age restrictions, or other measures to make acid harder to purchase. Those regulations won’t be easy to instate.

Acids serve as main ingredients in many cleaning products

Many common cleaning supplies contain dangerous acids | Jean-Francois Monier/AFP/Getty Images

Because corrosive acids make up a percentage of many household cleaners, requiring retailers to regulate them won’t be easy. Labour MP for East Ham Stephen Timms wants to see additional safeguards. He said he is “most concerned about sulphuric acid.” The MP suggested carrying a bottle without justification should be treated like carrying a knife.

“In the short term, the government has to introduce a license system to purchase concentrated acid and credit card payments for purchases, to track and aid police investigations,” Shah told The Guardian. “The government has to conduct detailed research to better understand the problem. This will enable a targeted response. A key factor is to tackle root causes of acid violence such as ideas around masculinity.”

In 2016, a report issued by the former MP for Kingston and Surbiton James Berry called for some potentially lethal substances to require a license for purchase, The Guardian said. The report also called for the industry to be “encouraged and if necessary required” to reformulate common cleaners to reduce their corrosive content or make them more viscous.

Once a criminal uses acid against another person, the next legal hurdle comes into play.

Acid carries a lower sentence than knives or guns

Armed police personnel patrol in London’s Trafalgar Square following an overnight knife attack | Daniel Lealolivas/AFP/Getty Images

Harding called acid “a weapon of first choice” for attackers. He explained that acid throwing shows dominance, power and control, building fear among gang members. Lower charges follow using acid compared to knives, another common assault weapon in the UK in particular.

“There’s no specific offense of throwing acid. It’s a harder offense to prove because there is rarely any DNA evidence and it’s much easier to dispose of a plastic bottle than it is a knife,” the expert explained. Criminologist Marian FitzGerald said imposing restrictions may not help. To her mind, criminals will just find another easily accessible weapon.

“The people that are actually using these readily available domestic pieces of equipment, in a premeditated way,” she said on NPR. “If there is pressure on one particular type of weapon, they will use another.”

Many victims don’t come forward

Colombian Maria Cuervo shows off a portrait from before her 2004 attack | Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images

The BBC reported that about 74% of attacks could not be prosecuted because perpetrators could not be identified or victims did not press charges. Assistant Chief Constable Rachel Kearton fears acid attacks are a “hidden crime” because victims fear reprisal.

“It’s something that is used in order to maim and disfigure people and … it has lasting physical and emotional damage for victims,” said Kearton.

Globally, women represent most acid attack victims, but men fall victim more often in Europe. “What we know in the UK is that the majority of perpetrators are young men, as are at least two-thirds of the victims,” Shah said. “The majority of the attackers are British white men and the majority of the victims are white men too.”

He called the number of reported attacks misleading, because the nature of acid attacks discourages victims from coming forward. “The damage is so serious that many survivors carry the scars throughout their lives and it pushes them into pretty serious social isolation,” he explained. “That’s often the intention of the perpetrators, not just to cause lasting scars but to send a message to the survivors. That’s part of the reason people may not report it, the fear of reprisal is very much there.”

The perpetrators of the attacks may point to why this is the case.

Robbery or gangs motivate most acid attacks in the UK

Motorcycle delivery drivers and motorcyclists take part in a demonstration against acid attacks | Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images

“We are now at levels that one of my colleagues described as epidemic,” said Dr. Martin Niall. He works as a burn surgeon at Mid-Essex Hospital in East London, which treats many of the burn victims. “Everyone, ourselves included, has been shocked by this emerging threat to public health.”

Many attacks come at random, often perpetrated by teens who ride stolen motorbikes or steal goods during the attacks.

“You hear of these motorbikes coming up to you, someone throwing acid and then trying to take your cars or your mobile phone,” Abdul Shohid told NPR. He owns a hardware store in East London. The shopkeeper drives with his windows up, checking behind him when he locks his shop. He also sells corrosive products only to people he already knows. Elsewhere, acid attacks impact women disproportionately. The reason speaks to the prevalence of vanity worldwide.

In other countries, jilted men carry out more attacks

Iranian Ameneh Bahrami holds up a photo of herself before she was attacked with acid | Luis Gene/AFP/Getty Images

The Daily Beast reported a rise in acid attacks in Italy, often committed by jilted former lovers. They want to leave the women scarred, both physically and emotionally.

“They use acid because it takes just a tiny dose to corrode and ruin someone’s life,” politician Michele Marzano told The Daily Beast in 2013. “The aggressor often chooses a woman’s face because it embodies her beauty and her identity. The acid removes the shape of her face. It is a way to cancel her out.”

Acid attacks outside of Europe represent a huge proportion of violent crimes, especially against women. According to the Acid Survivors Foundation in India, the earliest recorded acid attack took place in 1920. In that country, 882 acid attacks took place between 2010–2015, the Asia Times reported. That number likely under-represents the vast number of crimes that go unreported.

In India, the main recorded causes of acid attacks range widely, from theft and robbery to sex crimes. Every year, about 1,500 people suffer acid attacks, 80% of whom identify as female, and 40-70% of whom are under 18. Whatever their motives, acid attacks significantly impact the lives of those affected. Stopping their rise presents a complex problem to lawmakers, but a necessary one.

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