Jun 232011

By Terry O’Neill in The National Post Jun 23, 2011

It has been a good week to be a psychologist, criminologist or sociologist in B.C., as quote-seeking reporters and columnists scoured the academic countryside looking for insights, observations, theories, explanations and opinions about all things to do with Vancouver’s Stanley Cup riot. Disappointingly, however, their responses invariably fell short of being truly illuminating.

Even some of the rioters and looters themselves have turned to the usual lineup of deep thinkers to help them explain why they did what they did during that infamous night.

This, in fact, is exactly the strategy one university student embraced in a now-notorious essay she posted online in an attempt to apologize for her looting of a men’s wear store. Parroting many of the experts — and, indeed, actually quoting a few of them — Camille Cacnio described how an allegedly conscience-numbing combination of alcohol and adrenaline caused her to steal two pairs of pants, which she said she took as souvenirs of the evening’s events.

As noted in Wednesday’s National Post, Cacnio’s original, 3,000-word-long mea culpa declared, “I had no intentions of defiling the city … But in my immature, intoxicated perspective all I saw was that the riot was happening, and would continue happening with or without me, so I might as well get my adrenaline fix.”

Statements like that led many online critics to blast Cacnio for attempting to rationalize or even justify her actions, and she subsequently posted a far-shorter, more straightforward apology in response.

Nevertheless, her original tract remains accessible. This is undoubtedly good news for students of human nature, because the document provides some important insights into the destructive riot and, in doing so, also inadvertently rebuts facile rationalizations about its causes.

Facile, because a great many experts, such as Christopher Schneider, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia (who was, in fact, quoted by Cacnio), concentrated their ruminations on explanations relating to “mob mentality.”

Regrettably, however, few ventured into the more complex and potentially more revealing territory of personal conscience and responsibility. This omission inevitably led casual observers to conclude that many of the rioters were little more than biological machines that reacted in strange and dangerous ways to the stimuli of the night: the bitter disappointment or anger over the Canucks’ game seven loss, the booze and the adrenaline.

Insights and observations about the role of free will, individual choice and ethical action were difficult to find, even though it is clear that a great many fans, who were subjected to exactly the same stimuli as Cacnio and the other rioters and looters, did not join the mayhem.

What could explain dissimilar responses to similar stimuli? Ironically, Cacnio herself provides a clue in a passage in which she attempts to persuade the reader that she is a “good person.”

She writes: “As many of you already know, I am majoring in Conservation Biology at UBC. I strongly believe in ecological conservation and sustainability. That night [the night of the riot], I saw a few people that were trying to knock trees down. So what did I do? I yelled at them, saying ‘Pleaaseee [sic], not the trees!!!!’ And what did they do? They stopped. And I felt like a hero.”

What Cacnio is telling us, then, is that, on a night in which she says she was so jumped up with adrenaline and booze that she found looting a store to be a perfectly rational thing to do, she was also morally aware and clear-headed enough to put her love of the natural world into action by saving some trees.

Something doesn’t add up. She can’t have it both ways, just as the experts’ musing about the effects of stimuli on the rioters doesn’t explain how the same stimuli can leave so many people unaffected.

Clearly, there’s an element missing in Cacnio’s self-analysis and the experts’ cogitations, and that’s the role that one’s moral standards play in determining one’s actions. Cacnio’s strong convictions relating to the environment allowed her to overcome the otherwise conscience-numbing effects of the evening’s stimuli and to make the “right” decision about saving trees.

Similarly, it can be speculated that the majority of the fans were able to resist the temptation to join in the mayhem because of their moral convictions about such things as responsible action and the value of personal property. Conversely, it can also be said that those with less-well-formed moral character succumbed to the stimuli.

Ultimately, then, participation in the riot was a matter of free will. Some chose to do evil. Thankfully, however, a great many chose to do good.

National Post

Terry O’Neill is a Vancouver journalist and community activist who co-hosts Roadkillradio.com

  2 Responses to “Looting isn’t a reaction. It’s a choice.”

  1. Hello Terry – just listened to your excellent interview on CBC’s ‘Cross Country Check Up’. Well done!  I agree with your observations about these public confessions (motivated of course by the fact that the thugs’ had already been caught red-handed). 

    You might already be familiar with researcher Dr. Gordon Russell, author of the book ‘Aggression in the Sports World’ who told CBC Radio interviewers last week about certain personality profiles
    that likely predisposed many to riot in Vancouver on June 15th. He also predicted that the
    personalities of the Vancouver rioters likely include these three main traits:
    – impulsive (“acting without forethought”)- anti-social (“just do things for the hell of it”)- sensation-seeking (“willing to take risks for intense experiences”)

    Let’s hope that this ‘naming and shaming’ campaign will ultimately lead to what may have previously been a foreign concept for many young rioters: facing the logical consequences for their actions.

    More on this at “The Vancouver Riots: A Backlash Against The Backlash”  – http://ethicalnag.org/2011/06/20/vancouver-riots-backlash/

  2. The full story of the apology letter is http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/Full+text+original+apology+Camille+Cacnio/4977657/story.html

    This letter is very LONG!  Clearly this is an attempt at damage control without benefit of a trained public relations agency to perform the desired spin. She is clearly educated, and elected to use her skills to attempt spin control in an hour’s work of writing. Which failed. This written response is far out of proportion to the original sin, so this unskilled attempt at spin control through word manipulation attempt likely will likely affect future job prospects long after she has learned her lesson.

    Riot aside, this mentality of “Oops, I’ve been caught” and “Here’s the ‘real’ story” spin response is very typical of the current state of today’s society. The Ministry of Children and Family Development uses this psychology on parents who have been “caught” abusing or neglecting their children. Parents are then portrayed as people unwilling to accept their sin and who are put into the position of trying to explain it away as a mistake for which they should not be blamed. The difference here is that the reality is the parents are the victims, and the government are the rioters who get to remain anonymous.

    The other aspect, this virtual stoning of people also needs some governance. The biblical saying “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” comes to mind. An eye, foot and hand for an eye approach certainly must have the desired deterrent effect, but how does one use this to stop a riot that is occurring in real time? In the long term, how does it help society if a talented individual who has paid pennance and learned her lesson and who has skills to contribute, is blacklisted from being able to contribute to society?

    My simple idea to deter people participating riot is in progress is to have a few trained speakers with megaphones driving that fancy new armored vehicle the police have, armed with video camers and big-screen TV photos of past riot transgressors to quickly educate individuals on the concept of accountability.  Why were police not on rooftops filming as they do at the fireworks and other large events?  People quickly get the idea of future accountability when police-operated cameras are visible.

    When I was confronted with an young male irate motorist who thought I stole his parking spot, I was accompanied by my two young children. Through his attempt at intimidation and approach, he was clearly hoping to instigate a physical reaction from me to provide him with an excuse to respond in kind. There was also clear the potential existed that the moment I was out of visible range, my car would be keyed. I responded calmly, took out my camera and audio recorder and snapped a photo of the individual, his car and his license plate. End of story.

    I as a parent wonder if I have done my job adequately so that if my children were in the same position would they participate in such a riot, would they be active in stopping those around them, would they watch and eagerly take pictures and videos of the event, happy to be part of the melee, or would they leave. Given their young age now, I suspect point 2. Perhaps when they are older, point 1. Perhaps if they have family, point 3.

    In 1994 I watched the Stanley Cup Riot from my Thurlow and Robson apartment window. I saw the slow lead up to the riot and the concluding lineup of police preparing to advance on the crowd, then finally doing so. I took many pictures. What stuck in my mind after all these years was not the indiscretions of individual rioters, but a few police officers in the alley who targeted some people who provided no threat profile that I could see, proceeded to intimidate these citizens and hit them with batons without provocation. I suppose this is what is referred to as proverbial street justice. It was uncalled for and did not fall within the realm of common sense or justification. Video evidence in this case would not have been a deterrent for the officers. Since this was in a back alley, a potential excuse used by police that the action would be a visible deterrent by other rioters does not wash.

    It is now the turn of authorities who had the power to prevent and better control past riots to become accountable and be named.

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