Reading news accounts of the riots and looting, I was struck by the parallels to mass atrocities, in particular the ways in which a breakdown of social norms enabled many of these crimes. This description from Saturday's NY Times captures the difference between the riots and ordinary crimes (i.e. those committed by individuals deviating from stable social norms):
In some of the more shocking cases, the crimes seemed to be rooted in nothing more than split-second decisions made by normally orderly people seduced by the disorder around them.The article goes on to describe crimes committed by normally law-abiding Britons. Another article describes the "alienation and resentment" of Britain's unemployed youth.
Given the group mentality underlying these crimes and the broad roots of the problem, an individualized criminal response alone will likely be inadequate to reconstruct social norms condemning such behavior. In other words, without a more significant effort to connect to offenders' belief systems, those held criminally responsible for the riots may well reject the legitimacy of their convictions and fail to internalize the wrongfulness of their behavior. These attitudes are likely to be hardened by the draconian punishments being meted out to rioters, such as a 6-month prison sentence for a first-time offender who stole $5 worth of bottled water. This outcome increases the risk of repeated violence and bystander seduction.
The "independent communities and victims panel" to give voice to those affected by the riots is a good start in unearthing the roots of the violence. But a more serious and ultimately effective justice process would not end there. It would highlight the voices of victims, sending a strong message that such violence is unacceptable, while at the same time incorporating the perspectives of the perpetrators by acknowledging and even attempting to dismantle the social inequities that prompted their actions.