Because they can
For those readers not in the UK, this started as a peaceful protest at a police shooting (which was possibly a mistake but investigation takes ages) and the rather poor treatment of the family of the victim. In the UK, most of our police don't carry guns, so this is a rare and troubling event. The local community spontaneously protested. And someone decided this was a good setting for a riot.
But pretty quickly it became evident that this was not really anything to do with that. This is about young people taking the opportunity of a temporary breakdown in peace-keeping to have some destructive fun (smashing and burning things) and to get some stuff – it's no accident that the targets are phone, electronics and high-end sports and fashion shops. That's apart from the woman photographed looting armfuls of haribo – kids and grown-ups love it so!
Are these kids natural criminals? I don't think so. I think they're opportunists. Him Up North has written a lovely creative piece (I assume it's creative, as I have reason to believe Him Up North is not a teenager living at home ) expressing the sense of 'getting caught up' of what's going on.
So why? I'd like to make a simple suggestion: because no-one has given these kids any reason not to do stuff like that. And if our leaders really want to prevent this sort of thing happening again, that's what they need to do.
Historically, lots of things have been used to prevent criminal or amoral behaviour. Will any of them work here?
The fear of God.
Time was when God or religious belief was motivation enough to behave appropriately. People literally had the hell scared out of them. They were taught from an early age that stealing a sweetie or talking back at teacher was liable to end you in eternal torment. Unfortunately, most people these days don't actually believe in God. And those of us who do are highly uncomfortable with his/her being used to promote social control because of the dangers inherent in that: what happens when the state does need opposing? Besides, who wants to believe in a divine creator who loves people so much s/he send them to infinite torment for extremely finite crimes?
Because it's wrong
With God out of the picture, he has been replaced with a humanist morality. Some things are just 'wrong' because they obviously are. Or are they? Our collective social morality has become increasingly relativistic, to the point where 'right' has become equal to 'you can get away with it'. These young people have seen plenty of people – leaders of industry and politics among them – make off with huge wealth that wasn't theirs. And get away with it. So the notion that some things are just 'wrong' no longer has much currency. And when you're stealing from large corporations (like big chain stores) it feels vaguely victimless. So if you can get away with it, it's ok, right?
Fear of the law
It's no accident that this started at a peaceful protest into the police mis-handling something. Because that ensured that they were on the wrong foot. Did the police try the 'softy softly' approach a little too long out of fears of headlines about brutality? Realistically, how many of these young people will be brought to court? And if they are, what can/will the courts do? Our prisons are already overflowing. We lock up more of our population than anyone else in Western Europe. A fine? A few hours community service? Our law isn't scary any more
Fear of public disapproval
Really? Most of those kids will have had their peer group around them. When I was a kid the idea that a policeman came to a house in our street would set the neighbours talking for a week. If you had a social worker, it was something to be ashamed of. But “What will people think” is no longer a reason not to do something. People don't actually care any more. Besides, you can always take out an injunction to stop anyone making news out of it.
Because it will screw up your own future
This might work. If these folks had anything to lose.
And that's the point, isn't it? These are folk who cannot see that they have anything to lose. They have no reason not to opportunistically grab a wii, a pair of trainers or a bag of haribo. Most of them will get away with it. Our politicians will rant that there's no justification for this sort or behaviour – but was there justification for the bankers getting huge bonuses? for MPs (and fraud investigators, and council leaders...) claiming expenses that certainly don't look like they're job related? for sports-people and entertainers to earn the sorts of wealth most of us can't even imagine while ordinary people like nurses and firemen lose their jobs? If we want moral behaviour from the populace, we have to start by demonstrating moral behaviour from the leaders.
Otherwise, sooner or later this will happen. People have learned that they can get away with something for nothing. And they have no reason not to.