During the eight years I lived in Japan, there occurred a rash of horrific murders committed by young men in their teens. Almost all of these crimes were the acts of lonely outcasts, teens with especially low self-esteem who had been victims of bullying and ostracism their whole lives. They lived uneventful lives until one day, they snapped. Then, all of the resentment they felt came to a head, and they lashed out at peers, parents, or complete strangers, often committing multiple murders with such weapons as kitchen knives, baseball bats, or samurai swords. It got so bad that walking the streets of Kyoto, I started giving a wide berth to every young man under twenty.
It was the mob attack last week on Charles and Camilla that brought back these memories for me. This attack was also the work of teenagers for the most part, but it had a very different source. The violence in Britain was the work of an inflamed mob, roaming en masse from one object of attack to the next and arrogantly chanting "off with their heads" as they assaulted the royals' car. These were not the actions of lonely outcasts driven to despair by years of abuse. Rather, they were the acts of young people who felt an almost unlimited sense of entitlement and who became enraged when their expectations were not met.
In addition to the mob that gathered outside Parliament and then swarmed through London's shopping districts, a second teen mob was on the rampage last week. The "Anonymous" mob apparently seeking "payback" for the detention of Julian Assange caused temporary disruptions to the websites of several major financial institutions.
This second mob had a similar profile to the one rampaging in central London. These were not teen pariahs acting out of desperation. Like the 16-year-old Dutch boy arrested Thursday, they were largely middle-class youths who are the product of an affluent society. They were young men and women who, with their excessive sense of entitlement, claim the prerogative to flout any law with which they disagree.
Unlike their Japanese peers, who too often suffer from a lack of self-confidence, many teens in Europe and America seem all too self-assured, even smug, emboldened by the belief that they can deploy any means to obtain their political ends. Whether they engage in violence in the streets or illegal acts on the web, they seem to relish the sense of power that mob activity confers. They are not victims seeking redress for wrongs done to them, but bullies reveling in their power. They are not interested in political dialogue or negotiation. Because they have been coddled and praised all their lives, their natural inclination is to have their way without discussion or delay.
Indeed, I suspect that it is not the raising of tuition fees, in and of itself, or the fate of Julian Assange that triggered the enraged responses of the London mob and their Anonymous peers. Rather, it was the dawning sense that society has reached a crossroads after which more will be expected of them and less handed out for free. It is not so much university fees that are troubling British teens as it is the sense that they may finally have to grow up.
After all, the tuition increases approved by the British House of Commons actually eliminate upfront fees. Payments are delayed until such time as graduates are earning £21,000 per year, and even then, the relatively modest tuition costs are repaid over a period of years. This seems like a reasonable arrangement for a country suffering one of the largest debt burdens in Europe.
Likewise, those involved in Operation Payback seem to believe they are defending the principle of freedom. But Julian Assange, whose detention they are supposedly protesting, has not been charged with any crime related to WikiLeaks. He has not even been charged in the Swedish cases involving sex crimes: he is merely wanted for questioning. And yet his anonymous supporters on the web apparently believe that the detention of any individual for any reason, even for questioning in regard to such a serious crime as rape, is a violation of basic human rights.
What sort of world do these young anarchists envision? A world in which murder, rape, and robbery cannot be prosecuted because they entail detention, trial, and imprisonment?
What they seem to desire is a world in which they are free to do more or less anything they feel like doing. They seem to have no idea that there are limits to what individuals are permitted to do, regardless of whether they feel like it and even regardless of whether they believe it to be right. This is why the mob that attacked Charles and Camilla was so very dangerous.
Make no mistake: had the London mob which broke the rear window of the royals' car actually gained access, they probably would have done grave harm to the occupants. In the supercharged atmosphere that existed, with thousands of young thugs rioting and carrying sharpened stakes and other weapons, Charles and Camilla wouldn't have stood a chance. The situation might not have ended well, to say the least.
Again, though, it is important to pinpoint the source of this rage. Charles and Camilla were in no way responsible for the tuition hikes under consideration. Nor were they responsible for the debt crisis that has necessitated these fee increases.
Similarly, Visa, MasterCard, and the other financial institutions targeted for attack were not responsible for the questionable activities that necessitated their denial of services to WikiLeaks.
What enraged the youth of London and the anonymous mob on the internet last week was not mere legislation or legalities; it was an awareness that things have changed in the post-financial crisis era.
As a generation, the millennials have enjoyed unprecedented privilege and wealth. Now, unless they are willing to work a good deal harder and longer, they are going to have less. They are about to lose out -- not to British legislators or Swedish prosecutors, but to global economic and cultural forces. They are about to become less affluent, less entitled, and less free -- and they don't like it one bit.
Jeffrey Folks is author of many books and articles on American culture and politics.