May 22, 1992

Alienation and Rage

We are all crazy when we are angry.

Philemon c.300 B.C.

We all saw the scenes of Los Angeles burning and the wanton destruction of stores and buildings and uncontrolled looting. It occurred on such a massive scale that the police and fire fighters were virtually powerless.

To young people this might seem like a new phenomenon, but it isn't. Events like this have occurred throughout history. The question is not why it happened, but why it doesn't happen more often. What is it that keeps most people from venting their rage in this way? And why would people destroy their very own city, homes and the stores where they buy their food and clothing? If we hope to prevent such events in the future, it is important to understand the root causes of them.

I suspect that most of us are outraged at times. We either spout off about it or keep it inside. As a rule the rage passes with time. No rational adult would destroy his own home or community in anger. When people destroy property or kill someone it is because they see that property or person as the enemy. It is the rule in all wars and it is the key to civil riots. I saw it happen in Europe during and after WWII and in Nigeria. I have read about it during, before and after the French Revolution. It happens in third world countries and it is an ongoing event in South Africa. It happens only when people inhabit a city or country that they do not consider as belonging to them. Often the city is viewed as a prison and people see themselves as inmates, not citizens. Those residents who see the city or community as theirs would not dream of trashing it. The people who considered L.A. as their home probably felt the same outrage at the King beating verdict, but their response was totally different from what we saw on the tube.

When I was in the infantry toward the end of WWII, looting was the rule rather than the exception. We took what we wanted. While we had a right to take any military property, lifting civilian stuff was looting, and it was against the law. The Germans were the enemy --what did we care about how they felt? They were the people who were trying to kill us. Of course, we didn't fill our cars, nor did we take TV sets. We didn't have cars and there were no such thing as TV sets. What we took had to be carried on our back, so we took very little. People in weapons platoons, who had jeeps and trucks, took much more. The soldiers who followed us didn't loot. With them came the police who put the kibosh on that practice. But we were a law unto ourselves and we had the weapons.

I am not going to ask who is responsible for producing a whole class of people who are completely alienated from their community and city and country. The usual answer is society and I don't know what society is other than people. The alienated ones are also part of society. A more meaningful question is what would it take to end the existence of an alienated underclass and bring all people into the mainstream of our society? It is just a matter of time before another bit of stupidity or incompetence triggers another incident like the one that we just witnessed.

One of several key elements is that people will not feel that they are members of a society unless they serve some function in that society. In the riot-torn area of Los Angeles, 50% of the adult males are jobless. How can a man feel like a man without work? Those who have jobs and are part of a community are not likely to riot and loot. There is a self-perpetuating cycle that goes something like this: A man loses his job. As a consequence he feels like a failure. This hurts and, being a man, his hurt turns to anger and the anger turns to permanent belligerence. No one wants to hire someone who is always belligerent, so he stays jobless and angry. When something like the King verdict happens his anger turns to rage, as does that of others in his position, and we have riots and looting.The store that he is looting belongs to someone who has the job that he thinks belongs to him. He is only taking back what belongs to him. --Yes, I know that that's not true, but that's the way that it feels to him. In short, a very major key to preventing riots is jobs. But what businessman would want to set up shop in a place where there might be riots?

If you think that this can only happen in big cities, think again. It can happen anywhere and it does. The only difference is the scale of the riots. The vandalism that occurred in Laytonville and Willits is the same phenomenon on a much smaller scale. We also have an enraged underclass.

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