The riots in Paris strangely do not have characteristics that plague other conflicts elsewhere at least most of them. The Parisian riots aren’t about religion although the miscreants are largely Muslim; they aren’t about ethnicity although again the miscreants are largely of North African descent. The riots are almost like the opening of floodgates of simmering frustration of oppression and discrimination. The much hyped French society of tolerance and liberty fell apart as the riots spread all over the country and soon the original catalyst of two electrocuted youths from the Muslim ghetto was forgotten. Because it was never about religion or ethnicity but in fact, it was about broken windows.
According to social psychologists and police officers, if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken (Kelling & Coles, 1996). It is a classic case of neglecting a problem and wishing that it never existed. A broken window left unrepaired also smacks of apathy. Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist conducted a simple but insightful experiment. He arranged to have an automobile without license plates parked with its hood up on a street in the Bronx (low-income neighborhood) and a comparable automobile on a street in Palo Alto, CA (high-income neighborhood). The results were predictable – the car on the Bronx street was vandalized within “minutes” and after twenty-four hours, everything of value had been stripped. The car in Palo Alto remained untouched.
Zimbardo then did something that produced astonishing results. He smashed part of the automobile in Palo Alto with a sledge hammer. Soon after, the “respectable whites” joined in the carnage and within hours the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. The quality of the neighborhood thus made no significant difference to the plight of the abandoned automobile; except in the case of the high-income neighborhood, someone was needed to strike the first blow.
Similarly in Paris, thousands of cars were burned mostly in the low-income neighborhood occupied by the minorities but soon similar incidents spread to otherwise quiet towns like Nice in South France. Jane Galt offered a similar reason that is often true of mob violence. She hypothesized that riots were spreading in Paris because “breaking windows and setting cars on fire is fun”. She explains:
“Of course, normally we don’t go around torching automobiles, because the owners of those automobiles would be angry, and we would be arrested, and our friends would look at us funny. But take a group of people who have relatively little to lose from an arrest, since they’re never going to get jobs anyway, and who are, not without reason, permanently angry at the people who own those cars, and thus have very little of the social control that comes from feeling you are in a mutual social contract that protects you as well as the car owners, and add a minor provocation . . . voila! With a peer group giving us permission to bust stuff up, I bet a substantial number of us would go on a rampage too. The riot is only the mirror image of the lynch mob.”
There exists something deeper within the human psyche that derives pleasure from creating havoc and destruction. No wonder action movies where “stuff blows up” are a major attraction. Maybe evolution is not perfect; it still leaves tiny vestiges of our Neanderthal selves within us. Pity the urban planner cannot successfully take into account that part of human character.
Kelling, George L. and Coles, Catherine M. Fixing Broken Windows (New York: Martin Kressler, 1996)