Sometimes fantastically nasty cultural phenomena simply creep up. A decade ago it was fairly rare to see a media report of an acid attack in the UK. Now it is hard to escape the idea that Britain has a growing problem with noxious-substance crime.

An online petition calling for such substances to be regulated more closely is attracting signatures by the minute. On Monday the Labour MP Stephen Timms will lead an adjournment debate calling for the carrying of acid to be made an offence, suggesting that the purchase of sulphuric acid be licensed and advocating a change in sentencing guidelines. The concerns have already prompted anxious discussion, if no tangible action as yet. The Home Office hosted a joint summit on the matter with the National Police Chiefs’ Council earlier this month. Theresa May hinted on Friday at new legislation.

Related: Acid attacks aren’t just a ‘minority’ story. The media must reflect us all | Masuma Rahim

They are privy to the statistics. But all of us, alarmed and perhaps a little bewildered, are aware of the most publicised cases. Earlier this week John Tomlin appeared at Thames magistrates court, charged with grievous bodily harm. It is alleged that he threw acid at two young people through the open window of their car as they waited at traffic lights in east London, causing life-changing injuries to their faces and necks.

GOPUSA Editor’s Note: So… what do you think has changed over the past decade to lead to such an increase in acid attacks? Do you think a ban is the answer? The punishment should be very severe for anyone who does this. It’s sick, and “for some reason,” it’s on the rise in England.

On Thursday night, also in east London, five acid attacks were committed, apparently by assailants attempting to steal people’s mopeds from under them. Two teenagers have been arrested. London seems to be becoming the acid-attack capital of the world. There were 455 reported incidents in 2016 where a corrosive substance was used or threatened to be used, up from 261 the previous year. In 2015, in the whole of India, the number of officially reported incidents was 802. Even allowing for the fact that such crimes are unlikely to be reported in India, this comparison seems staggering. What the hell is going on?

Without getting too sociological, it’s worth mentioning that in a culture of individuality and identity, this is a crime that attacks individuality and identity. It changes people – how they look, how they feel – for the rest of their lives. These criminals assume the power to cause chaos in human flesh.

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They confer that power on themselves from the moment they choose their weapon. A gun or a knife can be brandished: “Give me what I want or you get it.” With this crime, it’s strike first and ask no questions at all. In a culture of choice, all choices are removed. The attacker is supreme. The victim is agonised and helpless. The level of injury is left largely to chance. And it’s all done in a couple of seconds.

Also, of course, in a culture of consumption, these weapons are cheap and easy to get, and just as easy to explain away. They’re domestic, familiar. They blend in. Indeed, the discussion around how to tackle this kind of crime focuses largely on making such items more difficult to buy. There’s a nihilism to the act of throwing a noxious substance into a person’s face that suggests that such criminals are not people to be reasoned with. They are way beyond that.

Yet who are “they”? One of the many disturbing things about this spate of crimes is that there are so many different patterns to them. In countries with strict patriarchal systems, there is a long and horrible tradition of maiming women by throwing acid for perceived sexual misdemeanours. Here, these crimes are not easily compartmentalised or understood. Mostly, these are crimes by men against men. But by no means exclusively. Nothing here is exclusive. Sometimes attacks are perpetrated with the practical end of robbery, the great damage done to victims seemingly incidental. It’s said that the crackdown on guns and knives has made corrosive substances a preferred weapon for criminals and gangs.

Burning a person’s skin with acid is a vengeful punishment intended to blight a life.

In other cases the whole point is to hurt, maim and traumatise. Again in east London, Mary Koyne was found guilty in 2014 of attacking Naomi Oni and sentenced to 12 years in prison. She was said to have been obsessed with her former friend’s good looks.

The problem is most extreme in the capital, but other parts of England are experiencing oddly localised spikes. In Bristol Berlinah Wallace is on remand awaiting trial for murder after Mark Van Dongen died of his injuries 15 months after being attacked with acid.

In 2015 there were even some statistics suggesting that over-75s were disproportionately likely to be victims of acid attacks, although figures may be skewed as they are based on hospital admittances. Even so, people over 75 accounted for 253 of 925 admissions in the previous decade. Who would throw acid at an elderly man or woman? Or at anyone? Lots of people. Far too many.

The most upsetting thing is that the victim generally has to live with the consequences, physical and psychological. That, of course, is why male perpetrators abroad have traditionally reached for a bottle of acid to disfigure a woman rather than killing her. Burning a person’s skin with acid is a vengeful punishment intended to blight a life. It’s a narcissistic crime. The perpetrator gets to feel powerful. At the same time they irreparably devalue the victim.

All crime smacks of psychological sickness, but this crime – so painful, so indelible, so traumatic, so effectively a longstanding torture – reveals a lack of empathy that is extremely disturbing. It is a crime for our times indeed.

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