Opinion

Kings of War – one of my favorite blog sites – recently posted two articles inspired by the London riots. The first – The Leviathan's New Clothes: Information and Power Relationships by Jack McDonald – caught my attention with the fact that rioters and looters are forming and coordinating their attacks using the same technology and tactics that flash mobs use to organize public entertainments. Similarly, some groups are organizing neighborhood defenses in the same manner. The second one – The London Riots: Further Thoughts by Rob Dover – startled me with the fact that rioters and looters who were being arrested, “they weren't youths... and they weren't ill-educated... a good number... were graduates in professional jobs who had traveled into the area for the purpose of looting.” 
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Although Jack McDonald, the author of the first posting, admits that he was reluctant to apply the principles of Counterinsurgency (COIN) to a domestic issue, I believe there is a logical link. Rioting and looting arise from the same roots as revolutions, insurrections, and insurgencies – all are civil disorders resulting from a disconnect between governments and their citizens. Thus, the London Riots are fodder for this blog.

The postings on Kings of War inspired me first to survey the reporting in various media and the reactions of readers in discussion threads relating to the topic. Generally, I discovered what you might expect – everyone using the event as grist for demagoguery. For example, an article on the Guardian website, The UK riots: the psychology of looting, was subtitled “The shocking acts of looting may not be political, but they nevertheless say something about the beaten-down lives of the rioters.” Meanwhile, among the postings in a discussion thread to a Los Angeles Times story, Cameron vows 'uncompromising measures' in dealing with riots, a reader posts the opinion that “These people are looting and burning everything they can get their hands on because they are lazy, shiftless, and on the government dole. They don't appreciate the value of other people's property because everything is handed to them without their lifting a finger to earn it.” How does any of this square with reports that “...a good number (of the rioters)...were graduates in professional jobs?” 

Although I missed the Race Riots of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States – I was either in training or Vietnam and cut off from ordinary news sources – I have vivid memories of later events that gave rise to rioting and looting, including Hurricane Katrina and the Rodney King Verdict, and have studied them for comparisons to the current ones in London. Obviously, earlier rioters did not have access to the kinds of technology that those in London are using to coordinate their activities. However, I cannot find any reference to “graduates in professional jobs” participating in these earlier events. Thus, we may have evidence of a significant shift in the psychology of rioting and looting.

Why would “graduates in professional jobs” participate in looting? Why would they travel into an area of rioting for the purpose of looting? As Quarantelli and Dyne wrote in Property Norms and Looting: Their Patterns in Community Crisis, historically “Looters are viewed as manifesting personal desocialization under stress.” What stress applies to a graduate in a professional job living outside the area of civil unrest? Obviously, I do not have the answers to these questions. Indeed, it took me three days and a lot of reading just to craft the questions. 

Should we be concerned? I am. Let's begin with a small exercise in situational ethics: Assume that your community is a target of civil unrest. You can see smoke rising from nearby buildings and your neighbors are stocking up on food and water. You arrive at the store to learn that online bank transactions have been suspended due to network outages and you do not have enough cash on hand to pay for the supplies you may need, and you discover that some stores have been abandoned by their owners and employees. Do you grab what you and your family may need?

I would not steal under ordinary circumstances and I doubt if you would either. However, there is nothing ordinary in a time of civil unrest. I can remember a time during the Rodney King Riots when police stood by and watched not only looting, but also assaults – a truck driver was dragged from his vehicle and beaten while they watched. It was stressful just watching it on TV – yes, news helicopters filmed that event. But, it didn't stress me enough to enter the area of conflict and grab anything.

My father wrote to me while I was in Vietnam mentioning the riots in Baltimore at that time. He told me that he had purchased a .38 caliber revolver and that he and the neighbors were prepared to defend the merchants where they shopped should the rioting in the city spread to the suburbs where he lived. I did not run out to purchase a weapon during the Rodney King Riots although I lived in the suburbs of Los Angeles at the time (well, truth is, I already owned a 12 gauge shotgun, but I didn't feel the need to man the barricades at the local grocery store). My father and I were totally different people. He was a bigot of the worst kind. He was indiscriminate in his discrimination – he hated everyone who wasn't white, Lutheran, and owned a Ford product.

Interestingly, in the aforementioned news item from the Guardian, the reporter speculated that “... it's just about possible that you could see your actions refashioned into a noble cause if you were stealing the stapes: bread, milk. But it can't be done when your nicking trainers, let alone laptops.” Here is a graduate in a professional job speculating on a situation when she might be tempted to commit larceny. Looting is larceny absent the element of civil unrest. 

Possibly, the graduates in professional jobs who traveled to the area of civil unrest didn't travel that far. The reports are not clear as to the distance they traveled. Were they close enough to be stressed? How much stress is needed to cause an otherwise civil person to act criminally? Again, I have lots of questions, but no answers.

I feel stressed. My government is breaking my nation. My progeny is going to pay a terrible price for it. I do not see anyone in Washington or Sacramento representing my concerns. Indeed, I have heard elected officials openly disclaiming the Constitution that I swore and served to preserve, protect, and defend. 

Yes, I'm stressed. I'm prepared to participate in a civil disturbance. Hopefully, that disturbance will be limited to legal processes by which the elected officials will be stopped in court or replaced in office. We are being led by a President and a majority of the members of the Congress (liberals of both parties hold a massive majority advantage) who are attempting to refashion America in the image of European social democracies. They want to emulate France, a failing government, where approximately 20% of the workforce is employed in government offices. California is already being compared to Greece, the standard for failed governments, where the civil service employs one-third of the workforce. By comparison, government employees in the U.S. is just at 10% of the workforce, but it has been growing. Not only has it been growing but also, more troubling, it has been growing the cadre of elite government workers exponentially. For example, when the current administration began there was one person in the Department of Transportation earning more than $160,000 per year. Today, there are more than 1,500 persons in that Department earning more than $160,000 per year! That's enough people to form a respectable flash-mob all by themselves. Does it take a great leap of imagination to see the reasoning behind a taxpayer's motivation to pick up a free big screen TV when he is supporting public servants with a salaries large enough to buy two or three of their own? Of course, there is no legal justification for theft, but we have plenty of examples of people who are morally handicapped regardless of their social station or education and might succumb to such reasoning.

Are “graduates in professional jobs” immune to larcenous impulses? [LOL] Just consider the case of Bernie Madoff and say no more. 

Generally, Internet discussion threads attached to news stories and blog postings are fraught with the inane and insane ramblings of seriously disturbed people. However, those posting in the comments sections at the Kings of War are of a better class (however, there are exceptions – indeed, I fear promoting the website will attract unwanted attention). Thus, I also recommend that you read the discussion threads generated by these articles. Readers of the first article, The Leviathan's New Clothes, posted some sensible challenges and the author responded with clarifications. However, the second, The London Riots, inspired more spirited debate.

One reader argued that Texas would respond to an incident such as the London Riots with “overwhelming force” to which another reader replied, “So you're saying the Texas response would be much like the present Syrian response...” Of course Texans would not be as brutal as Syrians. We have the option of using non-lethal means in applying “overwhelming force.” As the first reader replies: “...to whom does society have a greater obligation; those who obey the laws or those who break them.” I don't believe he is talking about the rules courts follow; all must be held equal in the eyes of the law. On the contrary, I believe he is referring to situations in which the police have the opportunity to interfere with the commission of crimes. Unfortunately, there are too many jurisdictions here and abroad, that are hesitant because perpetrators might be harmed even if non-lethal force is used. In others, the hesitation may stem from the fear of their own inadequacy or the potential legal ramifications that may arise from the use of any force by officers of the law.

As you should be able to see at this point, I am not necessarily responding directly to either posting at Kings of War; I am merely following a train of thought that was inspired by them. Interestingly, this train led to one last idea: I would rather live among Texans than Californians.

I have a friend who repeatedly challenges me: Why the hell don't you get out of California? It's a valid question. I pay a terrible price in taxes and over-zealous government regulation living here. I am surrounded by people who prefer big government. They recently elected a former governor who was able to return to that office because his prior terms were served before term limits were enacted. Once again we are beset by a state legislature and governor who are using smoke and mirrors to pass budgets that are horribly out of balance and increase spending on nanny-state regulations that we cannot afford.

My answers are simple and to the point. I remain in California because this is where my children and my grandchildren live. I enjoy a moderate Mediterranean climate with temperatures cooled by a cold water current from Alaska (while Texas broils in triple-digit temperatures all summer). Although, if the family moved, my wife and I would follow them to any climate. Also – forgive the platitude – you can run but you can't hide. California exerts a powerful influence on the rest of the nation and if we are to fight the battle against big government, it must be fought here.  

You may see me in a flash mob yet...