I was somewhat cryptic in that post ‘Interpretation’ yesterday. Deliberately, I suppose, because I wasn’t trying to make a flat assertion, but rather to point out possibilities – areas of murk, of darkness, of fog, of confusion. Of more than one possibility. Of epistemic uncertainty. Also because that post was only preliminary; I thought I would probably try to look at the subject further, later.
So, one thing I’m not saying is that there’s no reason for people in the banlieues to be angry. Hardly. No – but it’s not a choice between ‘people in the banlieues have every reason to be angry therefore the riots are political rebellion and nothing else’ and ‘people in the banlieues have no reason to be angry therefore the riots are the same kind of thing as suicide bombing or just plain criminal assault.’ Nope. There’s a huge amount of territory in between those two items. One possibility – among many, be it noted – is ‘people in the banlieues have every reason to be angry but the particular people who are out rioting are more caught up in the fun of group violence than they are rebelling in a political way.’ That’s just one possibility, remember – but surely it is no less than one possibility. It seems to me it’s not on the face of it so outlandish and implausible that it should be ignored completely.
There are hints, after all. There are complications. Where is everyone else? Where are the women? Where are the non-youth? Why is this a young guy thing? Well, duh – for the same reason war is a young guy thing. Yes, but that’s my point. It’s probably also for the same reason that most violent criminals are young men, and that most football players are young men. Because they’re fit, energetic, muscular, all that, yes, but also because (on average) they’re more aggressive than they ever will be again. It’s because they’ve got testosterone leaking out of their eyeballs. It’s because they like doing things like this. (There, there’s a flat assertion for you. Standing there all naked and vulnerable. Go on, knock it down.) That aggression can be compatible with political rebellion, with dedicated work of all kinds, it can be admirable and useful and courageous – but it can also be compatible with much worse things. Can be, has been, often is.
So it’s just not self-evident that what’s going on for instance in the riots but in other areas too is not at least partly just plain aggressive group-driven violent sadism. It can’t be. It can’t be self-evident – it’s happened too many times before. Lynch mobs, race riots, religious riots, the New York draft riots that were part race riot – and so on. Remember the video of what happened to Reginald Denny during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles? Because I do – it seared itself into my memory. Why? Because it was so obvious that the guy who kicked Denny in the head was having fun – was enjoying himself. And, I think, in a particular way – a self-righteous way. A way that was backed up or validated by self-righteousness. In other words a different kind of fun from the fun of a more routine, furtive criminal assault – of beating someone up in an alley. This was broad daylight, with an audience – and a ’cause’ – of sorts. (By which I mean, a very valid reason to be angry, but a non-useful way of expressing the anger.) So the guy felt good about it – you could tell, from the way he threw his arms up in the air. (That’s another naked assertion. I think it’s true, but I don’t know. I’m interpreting.) Maybe the reason it seared itself into my memory is partly because I could so easily imagine how he was feeling – I could imagine feeling that way myself. On another day, maybe that guy would have joined another crowd to rescue people from a collapsed freeway after an earthquake, the way people did in Oakland when the Nimitz freeway pancaked.
These things can be all mixed up together. People can have a valid grievance, and also have cruel sadistic vindictive urges. They can have both, and they can act on both. The one doesn’t rule out the other. It would be nice if it did, but it doesn’t.