We hear it all the time about riots: "hooliganism" or, as David Cameron put it last week, "criminality, pure and simple." But riots are complex events, hard to reduce to something as simple as that.
It's no surprise that established authorities, feeling attacked, see the violent behavior of their citizens in such terms. They react by becoming dismissive and punitive. The Chinese government used the same language to characterize student protests in Tiananmen Square, as did Arab leaders recently to describe rebellions in their countries.
And often there is an element of truth in such descriptions. If you have ever been in mob that was agitated about some injustice, you know how contagious it can be. Ordinary people, normal citizens, you and me - we get swept up and do things that would be unlikely under other circumstances: shouting, shoving, throwing rocks, smashing windows, and, yes, even looting.
It usually takes an incident to get a riot started, such as an accident or the police attacking or killing an innocent bystander. But once it has begun, the raging mob has a life of its own. Deep-seated resentments, repetitive frustrations and long standing disappointments galvanize people into action. And the mob provides cover, an anonymity that makes it easier to overcome one's usual reticence or moral scruples. One is immersed, engulfed. And it can become an exuberant experience, a joyful release for long suppressed emotions. It can also become manic, driven, a means of restlessly seeking new outlets. Leadership emerges spontaneously and changes rapidly.