August 27, 2011
The world was shocked. London — venerable, staid, the quintessence of civilization — seemed to descend into savagery. For several days, England’s capital was convulsed in paroxysms of random, degenerate violence.
My concern about London had a personal dimension. My daughter lives there. Naturally, when we saw the news reports, my wife and I checked up on her. London is a huge, sprawling metropolis, and we were relieved to know that the violence stayed away from the places where she lives and works.
While grateful for our daughter’s safety, we, like millions of others around the world, were saddened by the mindless violence, appalled by the orgy of theft, disgusted by the pointless destruction of property, and sickened by the sheer wantonness with which the perpetrators contemptuously violated the fundamental rights of others. In the perennial contest between savagery and civilization, depravity and decency, the wrong side held the upper hand for a while.
According to some American news outlets, the violence was a cry of protest against “unjust” cuts in government spending. A leading French newspaper described it as a rebellion against a corrupt society. Apparently, journalists on both sides of the Atlantic were trying to channel the ’60s and clothe acts of criminal violence in the respectable garb of fighting for a worthy cause.
My daughter and her fellow Londoners say, “Rubbish!”
London has protests “all the time,” says my daughter. In fact, her workplace shuts down periodically as a precautionary measure when those protesting for gay rights, student rights, worker rights, Palestinian rights, etc. march by. The recent violence wasn’t a protest.
Nor would my daughter characterize what happened as a riot. I remember the Detroit riots that happened a few miles from my home in 1967. Though the looting was unjustified, the Detroit riots were fueled by long-unresolved racial issues. (Some have cited a confrontation in which a London policeman shot an armed man to death as the flashpoint, but the localized reaction to that incident was unrelated to the outbreak of criminality in multiple areas in the city.)
What happened in London was malicious hooliganism, nothing more. Vandalism wasn’t confined to a particular demographic. Rich and not-rich (you can’t call them poor when they were well-fed and wearing “in” clothes), “mixed-color” (British term) and white, male and female, young and not-so-young (men in their 30s were well-represented in the mix) — all participated in the crime wave.
Hooligans burned down multi-generation family businesses for kicks. Looters and thieves used Twitter and other social media to plot robberies, simply because they wanted to have things without paying. The most depraved attacked firefighters who were trying to douse blazes. It was mindless, perverse violence-for-the-sake-of-violence, nothing more.
Initially, some Londoners wondered what they might have done wrong. It is a morally fuzzy age when innocent people consider taking partial responsibility for the criminal behavior of others.
That self-doubting and potentially self-destructive attitude vanished instantly when Londoners learned that some hooligans had tried to torch the hospital where the most severely ill children were housed. Within hours, stores in London were sold out of golf clubs, cricket bats, and other potential weapons. London police loaded up with plastic bullets, and — presto! — the crime spree stopped.
An insightful perspective on this outburst of violence comes from Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange, the film version of which was one of the leading movies of 1971. In lurid, vivid, unforgettable images, director Stanley Kubrick retold Burgess’ story of feral English lads who roamed the countryside looking for mischief — a brawl here, an orgy there, a rape and (oops!) an accidental murder over there.
The story has these criminal rowdies coming forth from homes where mom and dad are passive, far too preoccupied elsewhere to teach their kids right from wrong. If no parents or churches or schools inculcate in youth an internal moral compass of the “thou shalt nots” of the Mosaic Decalogue and the Golden Rule of Christianity, then they unleash on society lost souls, adrift on a sea of moral anarchy, devoid of the respect for the rights of others that enables a society to cohere and function.
How should we deal with these morally untutored individuals, ready to commit crime in response to their infantile “I wants” or in petulant retaliation to an adult world that didn’t love them enough to teach them about the most important things in life? A Clockwork Orange explores that difficult question provocatively and profoundly. An interesting undercurrent in the story is the portrayal of the State as something potentially more awful than morally deformed punks. The novel and movie were eerily prescient about the problem of law-breaking hooligans, very timely today.
The wanton thuggery in London showed major cracks in the foundation of Western civilization. Relearning the art of parental discipline, and re-establishing the primacy of the moral code upon which Western civilization was built, are monumental but necessary tasks. I hope we aren’t too late.
Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.