Pitts: retail thieves join crowd in ignoring the law


Why would they do this?

This question inevitably stems from a new wave of so-called flash-mob thefts, with dozens of thieves swarming retail stores just to take what they want.

It has happened in California, Illinois, Minnesota, and Maryland. Retailers ranging from Nordstrom to 7-Eleven have been affected.

For some, the search for answers will be an invitation to lead to fetish theories on poverty, permissiveness or punishment. But none of these things are unique at this time.

Think about it: this theft model has always been available for enterprising thieves.

It’s simple math. What can one or two security guards do if 60 people decide to enter and loot the premises?

Granted, advances in communications technology make this easier to organize now than before, but a wave of crime like this could theoretically have happened in 1985 or 2002.

It makes sense to ask why this has not been the case. What inspired this particular trend at this particular time?

Broken “standards”

So here’s another favorite theory: the social alliance has broken down.

That is to say the thousand tacit understandings by which a society operates, the agreements to which we all subscribe without a word being uttered.

Some are coded in law, others just coded in us.

Either way, these are rules – “standards” might be a better word – people usually obey even when they could get away without doing so.

You are not standing facing the back wall of an elevator. In heavy traffic, you take turns merging. You stop at a red light even when the street is deserted.

And, oh yeah, you don’t join a mob in ransacking a store.

While there is almost certainly extreme criminality at the head of this crime wave, it is suspected that many of its infantrymen are people with few serious criminal records.

How much do you bet that most of them will turn out to be ordinary, everyday people who figured out that there was some free stuff to be had, and all you had to do was take it, like a vacation dizzying social norms?

Where would they have had the idea that such a vacation was still possible?

The opportunistic looting that marred last year’s largely peaceful protests for racial justice has certainly helped influence them. But this is not the only – or arguably even the most corrosive – transgression of social norms that we have seen in recent years.

On the contrary, we have seen police officers and other authority figures exempting themselves from mask and vaccine warrants – and daring mayors and governors to do anything about it.

We have seen former public servants thumb their noses at subpoenas from Congress.

We have seen a seditionist mob enter the United States Capitol and be praised for it by some members of Congress and the media.

And we’ve seen a president rejoice in breaking standards, refusing to file his income tax returns, flouting the emoluments clause of the Constitution, openly engaging in government property policy… the list goes on. And on.

Worst of all, we saw little accountability for all of this.

So the question is not how ordinary people got the idea that a break from social norms was possible, but how could they not have it?

Everywhere you look, someone else is breaking away from the pacts that make civil society work.

Which makes these armed robberies seem less of a mystery and more just another disturbing reflection of our time.

Why would people do this?

Damn, why wouldn’t they do it?

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