Tuesday, August 09, 2011

What Riots Taught Us

London has been burning, quite literally, for the last few days. A mob took over its roads and attacked its shops and people. Police, stretched thin across the city, rushed from place to place, ineffective in the face of the new generation rioting coordinated on Twitter. Fire Services, struggling with a number of major fires in the city and the suburbs, were out-manned and out-witted. Politicians, London's Mayor and Britain's Prime Minister among them, had to cancel holidays and fly back to London. Strange images of burning houses and littered streets emerged in the world media. The usual bliss of London life disappeared: An unusual unease reigned.

This may turn out to be an inflection point of sorts in history. The riots are unexpected, because this was not prompted, despite what was initially claimed, by anger of a particular community. Yes, this started from the shooting an armed black young man in North London, but the violence elsewhere was crowd-driven, coordinated through social media and motivated by a general disregard of order. It was a strange atmosphere with lots of young people hanging around near the riot scenes as if there was a party going on. One rioter, caught up with a journalist, bragged that they are showing the rich what they can do, and said they have looted enough wine to keep drinking through the night.

The government seemed ineffective and clueless. The Home Secretary, despite her tough talk, proved clueless about how to react to the situation. Indeed, she was arguing for a while that the government can cut police numbers without risking violent unrest. The 'robustness' of her wisdom was on public display for at least 48 hours. Having practiced her 'tough' image only in immigrant bashing, she did not know how to her job when the moment came. The Mayor of London, completely out of touch with what's happening, first refused to return from his holidays, and was only persuaded later, presumably by the rising public anger, to show up. David Cameron had to return from his holiday too and may privately be cursing the sheer incompetence of his deputies. But he would be clever enough to know that this does not just show the inability of his cabinet colleagues to do their job: This demonstrates a much wider trend where the legitimacy of the state is being questioned and undermined.

The troubles will hopefully subside tonight and normal life will return. But the riots showed the fault lines clearly: The withdrawal of the welfare state in Britain is leaving a lot of people without cover, and the American-style self-service state is yet to arrive. We are living in a vacuum now, therefore, and this means a lack of respect and even fear for everything around us. It marks a sort of liberation of the mob among us, and lot of it was not led by 'sheer criminality' as claimed by the Ministers but by a 'cavalier disregard' of authority. A quick take on who is rioting tells us that many of them are common people, graphic designers, teachers, salesmen, plainly unemployed, the usual folk who would say 'hello' to you next morning, and who became a part of the mob just for the heck of it: This is exactly where the usual approach to Criminal Justice starts to fail.

So, as we pick the pieces from the riots and resume normal lives, we should spare a thought about the meltdown of authority. This may just be a glimpse of the mob future of Britain, and indeed, elsewhere: With our financial system nearing chaos and social system broken, we have to make some efforts to reweave what is boringly called the 'social fabric'.


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