|“The world is in flames: the fire can spread even to our house, but above all the flames the cross stands on high, and it cannot be burnt.” –Edith Stein (St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross).
England and the outbreak of rioting there have been very much in the public eye during the past week. The reports are all disturbing—and somewhat disorienting. I cannot pretend to understand precisely what these brutal, Twitter-organized mob risings are really about. I’m not a politician, nor a social analyst—though even those supposed experts cannot seem to agree on what is going on.
But the very notion of a riot mystifies me, and the more I learn about rioting, the more horrible it appears to me. Riots often seem to occur for no other clear reason than a sort of mob bloodlust which brings out the most diabolical side of humanity. My brother was caught in Dublin at the time of the riots there a few years ago; he ducked into a shop and hid while Dubliners smashed Dublin’s windows, lit fire to its cars, and otherwise damaged their own city. During the Civil War, women in Richmond went on a riot, supposedly enraged over the shortage of necessities which the war had caused; they stole and wreaked havoc that even Yankee troops had not yet been able to do in that city. Confederate President Jefferson Davis himself came out and begged them to stop, taking what money he had in his own pockets and throwing it to them in a desperate attempt to appease them. They eventually straggled away to their homes . . . and social conditions in the South were not improved one whit for their mad ravages of the city which was their own home and last stronghold against the North.
In a 1934 British film about the French Revolution, an Englishman hears of the terrors Frenchmen were enacting on other Frenchmen, and remarks sadly: “Damnable, useless cruelty.” That, I think, summarizes the reaction of all sane men to the bestial violence now taking place in England. It is not only cruelty; it is useless cruelty—cruelty without an aim, cruelty without a point; evil for evil’s sake. When the riot is done and the streets are filled with the dark and empty silence of death, the rioters may sit atop their charred pile of destruction and look about at the harm they’ve done, confident that they’ve achieved . . . nothing. Do they expect to improve their social condition? To win jobs, homes, benefits from the government by treating jobs, homes, and the government with extreme contempt? Do they demand to receive the dignity due to men, when they have behaved liked animals—or devils?
All such weird riots are a stark and startling reminder of how very low man can fall; they leave us asking why men would willingly do such damage to their own home towns and countries. The riots do worse than no good; they do deliberate evil. They seem a mark of the uncivilized; but as a saner Briton, G. K. Chesterton, pointed out in The Everlasting Man, sins that are evil for evil’s sake are actually the mark of a civilization that has grown decadent:
There comes an hour in the afternoon when the child is tired of ‘pretending’; when he is weary of being a robber or a Red Indian. It is then that he torments the cat. There comes a time in the routine of an ordered civilization when the man is tired of playing at mythology . . . The effect of this staleness is the same everywhere; it is in all drug-taking and dram-drinking and every form of the tendency to increase the dose. Men seek stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense . . . They try to stab their nerves to life . . . They are walking in their sleep and try to wake themselves up with nightmares.
Chesterton’s analogy is uncannily accurate, as any mother will testify. It is positively true that when a child wearies of his ordinary occupations, he turns most easily to mischief; that it is in a sort of wild idleness and boredom that an impish look will come into his eye and he will happily tear to pieces the book he has been told not to touch, or carefully and deliberately smear his dinner across the wall.
Perhaps the Englishmen tearing England apart are suffering from a similar “staleness” and are indeed seeking “stranger sins” as “stimulants to their jaded sense.” Perhaps they are acting precisely like over-tired toddlers in a tantrum. It may be that they are weary of their virtual online communities and social networks, and even of their virtual video-game worlds of destruction, and have decided, in a sort of desperation, to forge for themselves a brotherhood of real destruction in the real world. One thing can be certain, and must be said; no social conditions, no poverty, no failures of government can excuse such bestiality, theft and ruin and bloodshed. I have heard commentators try to work up sympathy for the rioters by saying that it is because of this government policy or that social inequality that the rioters are rioting. If they were really starving, there might be some excuse for them to steal food, but not to set fire to homes. They are guilty of foul, brutal inhumanity—no less guilty because they may have had some reason to be unhappy.
In the end, the word used by the Englishman to describe the French Reign of Terror is the only word to describe the English riots: “Damnable.” They are doing it, quite literally, for the hell of it. If they are not stopped, if sanity and common sense do not rein them in, then it may happen that they will remake Britain in their own image, and it will become—like France in the Revolution—a living hell.