28 April 2015
Rioting drives people to false alternatives: either the rioting individuals are entirely to blame for the situation or else the riots are so sociologically predetermined that blaming individuals misses the point of the event. It should be self-evident that individual depravity is not a sufficient cause of riots, or else some people would riot all the time. But one can go too far in making rioters mere puppets of historical conditions or extensions of root causes. Individual depravity does explain why some people's idea of a political statement is to sack a CVS drug store, although it may be debatable whether any of the perpetrators in Baltimore thought they were making a political statement. Rioting is a political statement regardless, since it signals that something is wrong with people and society. A purely moralist response -- saying "thou shalt not riot," which could mean "thou shalt not loot" or "thou shalt not protest" -- is inadequate to the situation. Realism requires us to recognize that under certain circumstances things will happen no matter how many moral objections you make, and that the surer way to keep such things from happening is to change the circumstances rather than the people. Say something like that, of course, and some people will think you don't believe in holding people responsible for looting and violence. There's a popular fallacy that assumes that when you acknowledge root causes and provocative circumstances you somehow absolve wrongdoers of responsibility for their misdeeds. But just because it may be easier to prevent riot by changing society rather than changing people, that obviously doesn't mean that people don't have to change or that individuals can't be held accountable, on the spot, for rioting. Some people talk as if those who acknowledge root causes and see the necessity of social change would simply let people riot until changes are made. On top of that there's a racist assumption that the Obama administration wants authorities to go easy on rioters who are most likely entirely black. Leaving the racism aside, such assumptions underrate our ability to do things simultaneously that may appear contradictory from an ideological or partisan perspective. It should be possible to push for social justice and take punitive measures against people whose pillaging of their own neighborhoods belies any pretense of political dissidence. Rioters may not deserve death but when they can't think of anything better to do then loot the neighborhood liquor store they don't deserve any sympathy, either. The state should show them a strong hand, as it should show a strong hand to those whose actions and reckless disregard for the economic well being of their fellow citizens have reduced multitudes to such a desperate state.