06/21/2011 08:11 EDT | Updated 08/21/2011 05:12 EDT

Young Men in Groups: Reflections on the Vancouver Riot

Last Wednesday night a part of our culture was reeling out of control, returning to what we see among chimpanzees in the wild. At its worst this kind of group violence can turn to genocide, and we cannot be so complacent as to believe that we are immune from such possibilities.


Some years ago one of our local police officers made the telling observation that if it wasn't for alcohol, he'd probably only have a part-time job. One could add to his insight the observation that if it wasn't for young men between the ages of 15 and 25, we would probably have much less need for law enforcement in our communities.

A lot has been written about the riot in Vancouver in the aftermath of the Canucks loss, and almost all of this writing has something to offer. It has been noted that a small group of young men were at the epicentre of the riot, and that many other young people stood by and watched as glass was smashed, stores were looted, and cars were set on fire. Many have observed that even those committing criminal offences, wearing Canucks jerseys, were likely hockey fans -- just not the kinds of hockey fans that we want to claim as our own.

There has been an understandable and entirely appropriate desire to hold the lawbreakers accountable for the black eye that they have given the city of Vancouver. There have also been many understandable and entirely appropriate displays of support for local police and local governments. As one series of photographs so aptly and sarcastically concluded of the purpose of this revolt, in contrast to those in Somalia, Libya and Egypt, "Our government spent millions of dollars to rent big screen TVs and host a huge party for us!"

What can be learned from this dreadful debacle? The overwhelming majority of those living in the Lower Mainland are disgusted and embarrassed by what went on last Wednesday night. But the response of the last several days has been somewhat encouraging. Some of the perpetrators, identified by our new technologies, have come forward to admit responsibility and express remorse for their actions. This is a positive development, and though they likely represent only a minority of those involved, we should welcome these statements as tentative steps forward, attempts to restore the balance. After the shame and the appropriate punishment, we are better served by giving them the opportunity to demonstrate change than by pursuing a relentless retribution.

It has been argued that more police should have been on the streets, but with a crowd estimated at more than 100,000 and hot spots erupting in many locations, it's not clear that more enforcement -- more police on the streets -- would have avoided what we witnessed.

Perhaps a large part of the problem can be found in the specific circumstances of the evening. The demographic was different from the demographic on the streets during the Olympics; these were not families of all age groups, but overwhelmingly young men, out to celebrate (one way or another) the outcome of a team sport, a sport characterized by high emotion, considerable drama -- and on this evening, a particularly disappointing loss.

Add to this cocktail a small group of young men who are criminally inclined, and you can begin to recognize that only a small amount of gasoline was needed for combustion.

I should add that in every era of human history and in every jurisdiction in the world today, young men are overwhelmingly responsible for crime. What those of us who study criminology call the "age-crime curve" is found universally: crime is concentrated among young men, begins at about age 15, and typically drops off, fortunately like the Matterhorn, in the early 20s. Virtually nothing that we have done, in any jurisdiction, alters this reality. Some jurisdictions may have less crime by young men and some more, but crime by young men is our norm.

And what is particularly worrying is the phenomenon of young men in groups. In England in the 13th century the crime rate -- and the homicide rate -- was about 20 times higher than it is today. Most of the homicides came out of mob violence, where the attackers were difficult to identify; crime was not so much an individual problem as it was a group dynamic.

Last Wednesday night we had a glimpse of this mob violence, fortunately without such extremes. But a part of our culture was reeling out of control, returning to what we see among chimpanzees in the wild. At its worst this kind of group violence can turn to genocide, and we cannot be so complacent as to believe that we are immune from such possibilities -- we have had more global examples of genocide in the past century than at any other time in human history.

I will conclude on a much less alarmist and more hopeful note. In 2011 we are worlds away from a commonplace of mob rule in Vancouver; we are lucky to live in what is quite rightly defined as the most livable city in the world. But we should also not be too complacent. In the worst of circumstances we can too easily mimic the behaviours of groups of chimpanzees in the wild, or an angry mob in 13th century Britain.