Foreign Affairs

Of Course America’s Psychos Are Ripe for London-Style Riots

The riots that ravaged urban England take root in phenomena that aren’t exclusive to that country, but are increasingly on the rise everywhere.  Could the same thing happen in America?  Of course it could.  And here’s why.
 
The acute social breakdown sparked by a single police killing of a perp who happened to be waving around a gun wasn’t unlike the rioting that took place in Vancouver, Canada, earlier this year when the Vancouver Canucks hockey team lost the Stanley Cup championship.  Most people who have a life shouldn’t really care about either.  Bad guys waving guns around in public are taking quite the gamble, and sometimes deservedly lose, just as hockey teams aren’t guaranteed to win.  Neither represents a larger cause or societal problem.  Those are facts of life that rational, thinking people should be capable of relativizing.
 
Social unrest is sometimes more understandable, specifically in Arab dictatorships this spring in which a small spark catalyzed regime change.  But there’s quite a difference between rioting in a G8 democracy and overturning oppression.  There is no moral equivalency between the two situations.  As the identities of the London rioters are slowly trickling into the public domain, we’re learning that among them were university students and trust fund kids.  As for the poor and disenfranchised among them—one 18-year-old had just been evicted from his state-funded $366,000 apartment.  And we’re supposed to believe this to be the definition of hard-up—or at least hard-up enough to start smashing and stealing things?
 
So what causes relatively well-off youth to act like hooligans without any legitimate impetus?  What we’re witnessing is a collective psychopathology, not unlike that illustrated by the main character in Bret Easton Ellis’ classically disturbing novel, American Psycho.  Everything is about them, and despite—or maybe because of—being given everything they need for a relatively comfortable worldly existence, either by their parents or by the state, they feel entitled to everything.  The main character in Ellis’ novel is a Wall Street player who has everything he could ever want.  It is that feeling of empowerment and invincibility that leads him to push the boundaries of anti-social behavior, up to and including horrific torture-murders.  He does it simply because he feels like it.  There is no rational social explanation behind it.  If anything, his actions—like those of the rioters—are driven by entitlement.  People who have struggled or have had to work for something know the value of private property, usually in terms of the amount of productivity required to earn it.  These same people, I’ve noticed, tend to pick up dropped small change off the sidewalk, while I’ve seen entitled brats who will stand there tossing the same small change out of their wallet to lighten their load, in total disrespect of the fact that money represents work.
 
It was the social media generation that instigated and carried out these acts.  Is anyone really surprised that people who can’t understand the rudeness inherent in texting while at the dinner table or posting their every boring thought and activity as a status update on their Facebook self-flagellation page can’t be bothered giving a second thought to anything outside of themselves and their own impulsive desires?  They live in a virtual parallel universe of their own construct, where everything revolves around them: their Twitter page, their Facebook page, their text messaging.  If there’s any lack of social cohesion, it’s between their virtual world and reality.
 
This social media element provides a new dimension to criminology’s “broken window theory” that suggests maintaining a sane environment helps to prevent further crime and hooliganism.  While hooligans have always existed, they previously had to locate other derelicts and the so-called “broken window” to exploit.  But as we’ve now seen, these days the hooligans can issue their thug battle cry to each other on social media sites through the ends of their sticky fingers.  This rapid mobilization is how the riots spread quickly from London to Liverpool, Leeds and beyond.
 
Social media narcissism and the bestowing of every unearned desire:  This is the new recipe for First World hooliganism.  Obviously America is far from immune.

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