One of the laziest cliches about the rioting in Baltimore is that it is driven by “anger.” I’m sure many people are angry about policing in Baltimore, and perhaps justifiably so (Baltimore is a poorly governed city, so it’s not hard to believe the police department is deeply dysfunctional — although I can’t say I know much about it one way or the other). I’m sure some of the thugs throwing bricks are angry, too. But trashing cars, stealing liquor and junk food, setting things on fire, etc. aren’t really angry acts. They are acts of gleeful mayhem. Look at pictures of looters pretty much any place, anywhere. Are they glowering with anger, or are they enjoying themselves? A riot very often is simply a festival of lawlessness, where people can let loose and engage in the (unfortunately, for many people) thrilling act of breaking things.
Bill Buford’s first-person account of soccer violence, Among the Thugs, is one of the best books on the psychology of mobs. At one point, he writes about a photo of a crowd attacking a tank that has been sent to restore order in Split, Yugoslavia:
The man with the mustache has been followed up on to the tank by five or six others. These men are not LeBon’s morbidly nervous, half-deranged masses nor are they Gibbon’s urban scum; they are ordinary, ordinarily responsible members of society, except in this one crucial respect: they have now done what is not done and cannot return to the orderly crowd standing around watching them. Having crossed this line, they are now outside the civilization they have left behind. One the face of one, the man pulling at the jacket of the one with the mustache, wanting also to get to the tank commander, is a look of terrible excitement. It is not panic or fear or anger or revenge. It is exhilaration.