Friday, August 12, 2011

London Burns: Chaos Isn't As Fun As We Thought It Would Be

Readers and viewers of science fiction are familiar with stories of post-apocalyptic societies. Government authority is either non-existent or it has been reduced to some authoritarian remnant as a sliver of society tries to hold on. On the streets and in the countryside, gangs alternately destroy anyone who gets in their way and they try to defend their turf. For the good person stuck in such a place, it is hell.

Of course, in the movies and books that use such scenarios, it's hell, but exciting hell. Exhilarating. A test of brawn against brawn, with an occasional use of brain. These stories are places we can go to experience what we have not, thank goodness, had to experience in our own lives.

We have been lucky. History is full – full – of such times, pretty much everywhere in the world, where there is a breakdown in order and local gangs and warlords take over. In such situations, there is no room for brains, caution, and grace. In such situations – think of Baghdad during the botched U.S. reconstruction or Somalia today – the strong survive and the weaker ones get raped, pillaged, and/or killed. Here and there, we get a taste of other such stories in real life, even in places where the government isn't discredited and authoritarian and the situation is not post-apocalyptic. Here in the United States, we still get murder and mayhem following electric outages or unpopular courtroom rulings.

In the United Kingdom this past week, there were four days of rioting allegedly sparked by the police killing of an armed (though non-shooting) man. People have died, including most recently a 68-year-old man who tried to get some of the rioters to stop setting afire a trash bin near his apartment building. More than a million people watched the YouTube video of the innocent Malaysian kid (bleeding profusely from a broken jaw given to him when the gangs beat him up) who was "helped" to his feet by rioters, who then robbed him.

The news programs, chat shows, political scream fests, blogs, and internet forums have been filled with people trotting out excuses for the rioters. Even when they include the caveat that "I'm not defending them" or "I'm not offering excuses," they are offering excuses.

The BBC quoted the state-run Chinese newspaper China Daily: "The riots offer food for thought not just for the UK but also for other developed countries. They were the outburst and explosion of a society that has been suffering in silence and which had reached the tipping point... Those who are taking to the streets are people who have nothing to lose."

And you know what? I don't buy it. I'm not exactly on the side of the right-wingers who are saying it's all a criminal matter, but frankly I think it mostly is. It is mostly people taking advantage of the absence of law and order by running rampant and spreading chaos. With the exception of China Daily and some others, what I'm mostly hearing is a lot of comfortable white Westerners parrot the ideological line that poor people are rioting because they they're poor and have no future.

Having grown up in the United States without money, at times in HUD housing, almost always in hand-me-downs, I simply think that's not true. Even if you take away the ridiculous notion that we'd have rioted in little ol' Green Bay, Wisconsin, you're still left with the fact that in no way would my parents, schools, city government, friends, or church have condoned crime as a response to not having what I wanted or needed. Yes, people have it worse off than I did, but when we are talking about the allegedly rioting poor in the UK, we have to acknowledge that there are billions of people who are worse off than they are. Usually unspoken in this political claim, but I think it's there so I'll go ahead and criticize it anyway, is the implicit allowance of crime as a response to joblessness or poverty.

I was particularly amused when some commentator, speaking after seeing a video of hooded youths rampaging through a UK city center, said something about poverty-stricken people of color having no other outlet for their rage. Of course, even with their hoods, we got enough glimpses of the youths to see that none of them looked "of color," unless we have now expanded that politically loaded term to include pink.

The desire to grant lenience to roving street thugs who burn, loot, assault, and kill is rooted in a political ideology that is in search of evidence.

Yes, I do think there is a bit of the economic explanation that is at work in these types of things. Maybe as an initial spark, or even in the initial reluctance by authorities to crack down too hard lest they be accused of overreaching. But I do not think it's the majority of the reason a small portion of people take to murder and pillaging. That requires a certain mindset that says that violence is in any way acceptable as a response; it requires parents who don't parent, schools that don't school, churches and other religious organizations that are afraid to teach, and governments that don't lead or protect. It doesn't require, but it certainly does benefit from, a reflex reaction from many people to blame the police and defend the rioters when rioters riot.

We hear the same weak logic with regard to terrorists. The story goes: Young Muslims are reacting to a lack of hope and possibilities, so they become terrorists. Last year, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was asked about that, and her reply (and remember, she is someone who has had Islamist death threats against her for years) was: "I have a problem with that. If we find it acceptable – if we even remotely entertain the idea – that if you lose your job, that there is one way to express your misery and that is by killing other people, we are really going down."


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