I couldn’t let the indignation take over. I waited until my head cooled down, in order to write not an angry article but a resolute one, addressing the points at hand, telling the story from an angle you never get to hear. In case we get too comfortable when making up our minds…
Paris, October 27, 2005. While responding to a burglary report, the police encounter a group of youths in the banlieue (suburb) of Clichy-sous-Bois.
Half an hour later two of the youths are dead, electrocuted while fleeing through a power substation.
The news spreads fast across the banlieues of Paris, and, by nightfall, parts of the city burn as angered youths spill on to the streets and attack public and private property in response to what they deem police brutality. The unrest soon escalates, and ten days later, by November 7, more than 270 towns have been affected, almost 9,000 cars have been vandalized, and around 120 police and firefighters have been injured. 2,800 arrests are made and the damage is estimated at around the €200 million mark.
The incident was severe, but it also rings familiar, isolated, even quaint, a typical example of the vagrancy so characteristic of a nation where people rise up and strike, picket, and demonstrate at the drop of a hat, paralyzing the entire country for days on end. Or am I too harsh and too cynical? I think this is what loads of people think, they just don’t share their opinion in public, only in private, after a drink or two, or when they think no one’s listening.
Whatever the case, and upon closer look, there’s more to the Paris riots than cynical stereotypes. Recent events indicate that the violence is the symptom of something larger, something less French and more international.
Take the so-called Arab spring. Long overdue, and bound to be messy. Oppressed for decades by ruthless dictators, secular and theocratic, people in Muslim nations across the word have been feeling the strife. Freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, the right to free enterprise, gender equality and universal suffrage, the right to worship any God one chooses – or not worship one at all – none of these liberties were part of Islamic society.
In an age of mass information and social media, it was a situation bound to come to a head.
And it did. Tunisia and Egypt erupted in mass protest, ousting their dictators, instating democracies in their stead. Neighboring Libya is going through the tail end of a bloody civil war, hoping for stability, while Syria’s rebel forces are putting up a strong fight against a ruthless crackdown. Bahrain’s movement has been suppressed back into submission, much like Iran’s two years prior, but one can feel those insurgencies fomenting in the civilian undergrowth, looking for a breath of fresh air to flare up again.
So much for the Muslim mass uprisings and movements. Yet what about Europe? Why did demonstrations and riots break out in places like Greece and Spain in recent months?
Democracy Under Pressure – The Periphery Chapter
The answer lies on the ugly side of democracy, in demagoguery and graft. Elected officials in these nations – as well as in many other nations across Europe – have taken advantage of their office over the years to promote their own dubious interests. Incompetence took over and eroded each country’s standing. Things were done in such a way that a disaster was slowly put together, one that bled the states dry at the expense of the citizenry.
It was bound to come to a head.
And it did. Lacking true leadership and plagued by corrupt politicians, Greece and Spain were led down unsustainable paths over the years, borrowing beyond their means, mounting up gargantuan national debts in the process, producing less than they were obliged to.
The result was a sovereign financial crisis that threatened the very foundation of each nation, not to mention the Euro-zone and, in effect, the global economy.
The problem was contagious. With countries invested heavily in one another, it was hard to contain the damage. Not managing one’s own finances seemed to be a southern or peripheral problem, typical of Mediterranean laxity and Irish flamboyancy, some said. But investing in each other’s debt was common practice. So the problem proved more far-reaching and harder to stamp out than many European politicians liked to present. This was a case of outright financial entanglement, one that required tough resolve to unravel.
The resolve was never found. Teeter-tottering between local politics and global economics, the European leadership failed to address the problem at its roots. Patchwork measures were introduced, first bailing out Greece, Ireland and Portugal, then placing these states under financial monitoring in order to help them straighten themselves out. Austerity measures were voted in, targeting black-hole finances, and the citizens, hit hardest of all, already in black holes of their own – financial and informational – reacted to the budget cuts by taking to the streets.
There we have it. Unrest and uprising due to political oppression and financial mismanagement. Simple as that, case closed.
The English Connection
But then comes August, and Britain, one of the most socially proper and prudent parts of the world, erupts in violence as looters take to the streets in north London, hijacking a peaceful protest over the shooting of a man by the police, ransacking entire neighborhoods in the process. The trouble spreads like wildfire and over the next three days numerous English cities and towns succumb to the fury of thugs, who, in broad daylight, pillage store after store and terrorize communities in a plunder that leaves everyone baffled. The British watch in awe as England becomes a playground for daylight robbery.
Each of the incidents mentioned above is unique. They all stand alone, each perfectly explainable in itself when observed in isolation. The Paris riots, for example, were racially motivated, perpetrated by people of North African heritage. Their grievance? Police discrimination, brutality, and oppression.
The Arab spring was politically motivated, geared to oust dictatorship and replace it with democracy.
The England riots were an orgy of looting and criminality committed in a rabid display of power, a rejection of authority and order. Each episode has its origins somewhere, and given time, will be dissected, analyzed, and explained.
But what about the future? Explanation is one thing – and pretty useful in setting people’s minds at ease, attempting to show that we’re on top of things, that we understand what’s happening. But where does it lead us? If things are to be explained and dealt with without addressing the true, undercurrent causes of what drives violent uprisings, we’re kicking the can down the road. Things are never really dealt with, and run the risk of flaring up again, when we least expect them. We need to understand more about what drives individuals to mob violence so that we may prevent further outbreaks if we can, deal with them if necessary, understand how they work if possible.
Understanding how they work is the key to all this. We’re suspicious and afraid violent mass movements, but a look at Egypt and Libya challenges our assumptions. Most of us are supportive of the uprisings there, they serve a good cause, we say. But not so in the case of the London or Paris riots – these are outrageous instances of vagrant criminality perpetrated by sick and perverted individuals. They have no place in civilized society. They should be crushed.
Funny how things change according to geography. Crushing criminal looters in our backyard is imperative, but when Gaddafi and Mubarak use the same language regarding those who attack the Libyan and Egyptian state of affairs, regarding those who undermine authority and order in those countries, are deranged dictators.
Am I likening the British and French governments to the regimes of Gaddafi and Mubarak – and the uprisings in Egypt and Libya to the riots in France and England? Not at all. I’m merely showing how when the shoe changes foot, so does the way we evaluate things. It depends where we stand and how we perceive order and justice.
A Force To Be Reckoned With
Did the London looters have right on their side? Most of us think not, but some are not too quick to condemn them. There are plenty of individuals who relate to their anger, hatred, and defiance of authority – not agree with it, but see where it’s coming from. So do many people in developing countries, who, upon watching the TV footage, were neither shocked nor awed, just amused, laughing and nodding their heads, wondering how we, the complacent and affluent “first world” like it now that we’ve tasted the poison they’ve been raised on. It must be amusing to see those in power fumble and stutter in a mayhem of – what is perceived as – their (our) own making.
The same goes for France. The French riots were an item of shock to most Europeans as well as to middle class citizens round the world, but to the poor, and to many ethnics an immigrants, and to (much of) the rest of the world, they were rather amusing, inevitable, or justified.
What does this mean? Firstly, that our audience is not so sympathetic, not when we take the world into account. A devastated West means eerie times for the Globe, but people don’t know that, they’re just eager to watch the custodians crumble, and they love it. It means that their time has come, now that the old are dying out. The meek shall inherit the Earth, not because it is a popular Christian dictum but because it’s a truism that follows from the principles of exhaustion and decadence of the mighty.
Secondly, it doesn’t matter if outbreaks of public violence are condemnable, ridiculous, or criminal. If they persist long enough and capture the imagination of a critical mass of people, they start fires in places we never imagined. Everything is interlinked, the function exponential, one incident affecting the other no matter how far removed they seem to be. Each outbreak is a drop of blood in deep waters, in an age reeking of catharsis. Our leaders – from politicos to stooges and the odd incorruptible fellow – know it. This is why they panic at the sight of trouble, eager to crack down on dissenters, which oftentimes makes things worse.
For now these insurgents are playing the game either on foreign lands, where they’re congratulated for their extraordinary courage by outsiders, or at home, where they’re condemned for their extraordinary criminality by society at large. Truth be told, the riots in France and England were nothing more than disorganized, mindless bouts of rage. But even rage stands for something. It says that part of the population is mad enough to go on a rampage and destroy property because it reminds them of how oppressed they feel, how outcast and hopeless they’ve been rendered. By their own hand or by force of society, it matters little, their alienation is real and their feelings a force to be reckoned with.
And that’s what matters. Illogical, unsound, criminal the actions of such protesters may be, but if we continue failing to address the root of the problem, the violence will return. Our appraisal of given behaviors as disgusting and outrageous won’t be enough to push them back, and neither will harsh punishment, not without a price.
Make no mistake, harsh punishment for breaking the law is necessary, and must be enforced without hesitation when the situation calls for it – but so must the search for answers regarding what causes the problem in the first place. Getting to the bottom of things and finding ways to deracinate problems rather than raze them at the surface is tantamount to an intelligent society. The two approaches go hand in hand, contrary to what the politicians would have you believe.
The problem is that no political party out there is able or willing to combine the ballsy spirit of the right with the intellect of the left to come up with a tough but informed grand policy on the issues at hand.
So here we are, teeter-tottering between the two sides, getting only half of the things correct at any given time.
A Time To Heal
For now, lasting insurgency seems an unlikely scenario. It hits close to home once in a while, in flash form, sometimes too close for comfort, from platforms that come across as appalling and condemnable, eroding all calls to violent uprising rather than inspire them. We’re pretty safe from all out mayhem.
But let’s not get complacent. These outbreaks are signs, symptoms if you will, of a deeper problem, so let’s treat them as such so that we may prevent them from spreading, perhaps even palliate and heal them. Failure to do so will allow them to set in, to come back even stronger, offering the global audience who watching us – as we have been watching them over the past decades – the show of a lifetime.
Should this happens – and it would be interesting to see how much money the mass media would make from ongoing local unrest, and what frenzy they’d induce in their effort to grab the exclusive stories, and what laws will be enacted by the state to restore law and order – we’re talking a whole new ball game. Win or lose, reality will never be the same. Mayhem or police state – both choices are appalling.
Let’s wrap up this savory article with a children’s rhyme, paraphrased, of course, to convey the variety of guises in which violent uprisings come.
‘This brave insurgent overthrew a dictator / This defiant rebel started a war / This angry youth had a grievance with police and started burning down the city, as did this sociopath looter who snatched himself brand new foot gear to wear in gangland / And this curious reporter is watching it all unfold, unwilling to be indignant in case he’s mistaken for the protesters demonstrating outside the Spanish and Greek parliaments, crying for entitlements that will ease their suffering while rendering their countries bankrupt.’