What turns people into looters? (5×8 – 8/10/11)

The predictable outcome of nothing to lose, Wisconsin speaks, PTSD and 9/11, the polar bear probe, and Ellen in Minneapolis

The first item in today’s Five by Eight is from colleague Michael Olson, who was good enough to fill in for me yesterday while I waged a battle with a migraine.


The images of violence and businesses being looted and burned in London are heartbreaking. For most of us, it is hard to understand why people would ever behave in a destructive manner like we are seeing and hearing over the past few days.

Our friends across the pond have had their fair share of civil disturbances, but these recent images also evoke the long and sometimes brutal history of civil uprisings and riots on our soil.

There probably isn’t an easy way to make sense of the current situation in the UK, but there are various identifiable factors at play.

Many of the rioters are young and currently on a school holiday. “Numbers are all important in a riot and the tipping point comes when the rioters feel in control,” Prof. John Pitts, a criminologist, tells the BBC.

“You cannot riot on your own,” he adds “A one-man riot is a tantrum.”

And while psychologists explain that imitation and a flexible moral code play a role, wide-scale looting doesn’t happen without some kind of leaders with anti-social tendencies.

Former Manchester United hooligan Tony O’Reilly recalls a rampage through Swiss Cottage in the 1980s when Manchester United fans ended up looting a jewellery store. “The mob itself wasn’t looking for jewellers but a few of the bright criminals used the mob and bystanders and the mob joined in because of the buzz.”

Rioting, in this case, is more than a form of political protest. But you can’t neatly separate politics from the disturbances and simply charge those participating as thugs.

Prof Pitts says riots have to be seen against the backdrop of “growing discontents” about youth unemployment, education opportunities and income disparities.

He says most of the rioters are from poor estates who have no “stake in conformity”, who have nothing to lose.

“They have no career to think about. They are not ‘us’. They live out there on the margins, enraged, disappointed, capable of doing some awful things.”


Five months can make a big difference…

Aside from a few polls that were conducted by organizations with skin in the game, there had not been widespread indication that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had lost the support of Wisconsin in his assault on public unions earlier this year. The demonstrations at the Capitol deservedly captured the news coverage — they were quite a sight, indeed — but when it came down to “punishing” Walker via the recall election of six Republican lawmakers, Wisconsin demurred. So either Wisconsin is behind Walker, or — at least in the case of Hudson senator Sheila Harsdorf — it really likes Morgan Freeman sound-alikes.

More significant, perhaps? It wasn’t close. Harsdorf won in every county, according to unofficial results.

Make no mistake: Wisconsinites were very interested in giving their opinion. In Harsdorf’s race, more people voted yesterday than voted last November. Still, what qualifies as a large and impressive turnout, is when 44% of registered voters show up to vote.

By the way, none of the national TV morning news shows led with the story of Republicans holding serve in Wisconsin. Or put it second. Or third.

3) PTSD AND 9/11

We’re a month away from the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Many people have moved on, but many volunteers in New York — and thousands of witnesses — are still suffering a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, the New York Times reports.

Charles Figley, professor of disaster mental health at Tulane University’s School of Social Work and a former Marine, advanced the concept of PTSD in a 1978 book on Vietnam War veterans. He said one reason the trauma had been so hard to shake was that it ripped at the most ordinary fabric of daily life.

The landmark is not a distant hill in Afghanistan that one will never see again. “It’s the places you see every day, where you proposed to your wife, where you remember getting the news that you got promoted, where your young children played,” Dr. Figley said.

“You go into a combat zone and then you leave,” he added. “You don’t leave home. You return all the time.”

One of those suffering still is Stanley Mieses, who filed reports for NPR in the days after 9/11.

Mr. Mieses, who is receiving treatment under the Zadroga Act, lived six and a half blocks from the trade center and watched the buildings collapse. The police evacuated him, but he returned every few days to feed his cats. “Dead people were blowing into my apartment off the windowsills,” he said, remembering the ash, “because the landlord was too cheap to clean it.”


Scientist Charles Monnett’s 2004 report that polar bears were drowning while searching for ice raised public alarm about the threat of climate change and melting ice. The assertion warranted a mention in Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

He’s now the subject of a criminal investigation into whether he steered a government contract to another scientist in exchange for a peer review of his work, NPR reports.

“There’s no way this can have anything but a chilling effect on the ability of other scientists to carry out their work,” says Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute with the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit that campaigned to have the polar bear listed as a threatened species. Her group has teamed up with Greenpeace to ask the administration for an investigation into this investigation.

But others caution against rushing to any judgments.

“We won’t know, until the [inspector general] is done, exactly what the charges are and exactly what they are finding,” says Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

That’s not to say Arctic ice isn’t disappearing. It is. But a study this week says it’s been worse in the past.


It didn’t take long for Minneapolis to forget about Oprah whatsername.

It was all part of a promotion from WCCO, which is moving her morning show to Oprah’s old spot.

As the video shows, she hung out at the Mary Tyler Moore statue on Nicollet Mall. That’s a fairly understated statue of a pop icon, at least by Chicago standards where this has now been officially dedicated.


Giving us another opportunity to play “art or eyesore?”

Bonus: A beautiful day, a lovely park, Red Wing, and the 1812 Overture. Breathe it in, it snows in four months.


What do you make of the UK riots?


Midmorning (9-11 a.m.) – First hour: Life as a CIA operative.

Second hour: Why do so many women say they’re doing more at home?

Midday (11 a.m. – 1 p.m.) – First hour: Financial planner and investment advisor Ross Levin answers your personal finance questions.

Second hour: Neurologist Thomas Rando, speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival on the subject, “Can We Reverse Aging?”

Talk of the Nation (1-3 p.m.) – First hour: Political talk with NPR political editor Ron Elving.

Second hour: Brooke Gladstone talks to Neal Conan about her book, “The Influencing Machine.”

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) – The nation’s debt ceiling crisis ended last week– at least one chapter of it. Soon, a congressional super-committee will have to find more ways to cut the deficit. Will it come up with a deficit-reduction plan, or a massive political fight for the rest of 2011?