Years back, I was riding home from a friend's house. I was in my early twenties. It was quite late. Midnight or so, and I was riding through a housing estate. Nothing particularly scuzzy or deprived. Just a typical dormitary estate in a dormitary town.
Anyway, I rode past a group of young guys. Some on foot. A couple with scooters. I scarecely made eye contact. I certainly did nothing to provoke them. I just rode on.
30 seconds later, I heard the scooters start up.
Instantly, I knew what it meant, and I pedalled like fuck. This particular part of town was whereI went every day, delivering the mail, so I knew the roads well.
Instead of trying to make it home, I made for a cul-de-sac, and hid in the dark space in the driveway between two houses. The scooters went the way I would have took if I'd headed for home. Then they came back. Then they went up the other way. Then they came back. Then they went down the cul de sac and back, but they didn't see me lurking in the shadows. They kept looking for me for perhaps 20 minutes before they gave up though.
These guys meant me harm. Whether they intended to steal from me or to beat the shit out of me, or both, I can never know, but for little more than kicks, they would do this.
It's something that I understand is just part of some people. At the same time, I find it utterly baffling. It's not a character facet I've ever found easy to access.
Petty damage is another matter. When I was in my teens, I did stuff like setting fire to the bins in the park, and graffiti-ing bus shelters. There was no malicious intent. I didn't do it to hurt anyone. Probably the worst bit of damage I caused was at the local scout hut. There was an overflow pipe sticking out of the wall of the hut. I pushed it through, and you could hear the whole thing topple and smash inside. Presumably water then pissed out of it all over the floor until the next scout meeting. I didn't stay to find out. I and my mates either ran or sauntered nonchalantly away. I suspect the scoutmaster gave a sermon about vandals and hooligans to the scouts next time they convened.
My uncle (the now dead one that was a magistrate) told stories of his childhood during world war two. He would go out with his mates smashing up anything that wasn't already smashed. People were too busy doing other stuff like digging for victory and putting out fires. He once found a corrugated tube in the garden of a bombed out house. When he swung it around, it made a whooping, whistling noise. I had a plastic tube that did this when I was a kid. But what he had wasn't plastic. It was someone's trachea. An ARP warden caught him doing this and sent him home with a thick ear.
Anyway, I guess what I'm saying is, the riots, and the unfocussed and vicious urges that they were a manifest symptom of are nothing new.
Why this happens, and if in a differnet society such things wouldn't happen, I don't know.
Steven Pinker points to the Montreal Police Strike (opportunist crime flourished, scores were settled, power struggles erupted) as evidence that we are naturally nasty to our neighbours, given the opportunity.
Robert Tressell, in the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists takes a different view.
Wouldn't that be nice?
`Do you mean to say as the time will ever come when the gentry will mix up on equal terms with the likes of us?' demanded the man behind the moat, scornfully. `Oh, no,' replied the lecturer. When we get Socialism there won't be any people like us. Everybody will be civilized.'
I wonder if societies where co-operation is the norm (if there are any left in this global age) can continue to live in harmony when faced with increased competition for resources? I'm re-reading Jared Diamond's "Collapse" at the moment. The societies he cites seem to have done OK while they were able to grow, but conflict seems ro have been inevitable when too many people were trying to get a share of too little of life's essentials.