Thursday, August 11, 2011

Democracy on Trial: The Differences Between Protest and Mob Criminality

In the past year, we have seen protests lead to the fall of autocrats in Yemen and Egypt, and incur the full wrath of dictators in Iran, Libya and Syria – where President Bashar al-Assad has used the army to crush resistance in the cities of Hama and Deil-al-Zor. With the use of jerry-rigged web connections in Egypt that overcame the government’s internet shutdown, and social networking tools such as Twitter in Iran, Libya and Syria, we in the West have had real-time insight into these demands for democracy and the repression they have prompted. From the living room to the highest office in the land, this coverage has prompted outrage over the denial of the right to protest that we take for granted. Indeed, Britain and America have led an international task force to prevent the slaughter of civilians and to remove the odious Colonel Gaddafi in Libya.

The common theme in each of these protests has been twofold: an indictment of the ruling regime’s abuses and control, and a call for elected, representative government through open and free elections. Have some of the protesters resorted to violence in the face of troops and tanks? Most certainly, but on the whole, these demonstrations have been peaceful. Perhaps this is because the protesters realize they cannot decry regime violence if they use violence in return, or maybe they know the world is watching. Whatever their motivation, they have not used their masters’ harsh tactics as an excuse for widespread looting, vandalism, and brutality toward ethnic minorities.

Meanwhile, in my native England, one of the world’s oldest democracies and a supposedly “civilized” nation, armed mobs stalk the streets, burning cars, assaulting police officers and looting shops. As with the riots in Los Angeles in 1992, this was not a pre-meditated campaign of violence at its inception, but rather a spontaneous response to the death of a young man at the hands of the police. It should be noted that the mob did not wait for the results of the inquest before reacting in the worst possible way. Now, with five days of rioting passed, the disturbances are indeed coordinated, with the ringleaders using the same tools – texting, tweeting et al – as protesters in the Middle East and North Africa to spread their call for anarchy.

Here, we come to the need for clear delineation. The tech tools of the desired ‘revolution’ may be similar, but the motives, methods and mentality are not the comparable. Participators in the ‘Arab Spring’ are rebelling against regimes that deny them freedom of speech, expression, worship and the ballot box. Every aspect of their lives – from what they’re allowed to read in a newspaper to what they can view on a throttled internet – is controlled by the state.

In contrast, the criminals, and criminals they are, who are smashing up London, Birmingham, Manchester and other English cities live in a tolerant, open society that, despite its flaws, provides all citizens with the right to vote, to speak their minds, and to express themselves. Their recent acts are like the tantrums of a toddler who is trying to intimidate his parents into getting his way. Yet a toddler is more sophisticated, for he knows that he has a defined goal – to tip a bag of flour over his head or steal a toy from his baby sister, for example. These rioters, hooded and baseball bat-wielding – have no such clear aim. Instead, they rage against “the system,” and the politicians who are supposedly keeping them ‘down.’ 


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