Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

More Than Teen Spirit

Many people experience distress and do not set cars on fire.


Last week I agreed to help a friend build some IKEA furniture. I dropped by her apartment in Navy Yard after work on Monday. I parked my car on the side of the road. Since the only laws enforced in Washington are the parking ordinances, I made sure to pay the meter.

Over the next two hours we assembled a rickety television stand out of Chinese particle board. We used the dainty tools from one of those all-pink kits that women insist on buying. The final product wasn't great, but you could put a television on it.


We finished around 8 o'clock. The street was lit by the dull glow that lingers after sunset. As I walked toward my car, I heard a series of thumps. The sound came from a group of teenagers standing by the curb banging on the side of a moped. I stared for a moment, in spite of myself, before continuing toward my car.

I had my cell phone in my left hand and keys in my right. As I came to my car, I heard the roar of an engine in the background. Two of the teenagers were sitting on the moped, one of whom was seated facing the rear. As they zoomed past, the kid on the back slapped my phone out of my hand, sending it careening to the street. He and his friend cackled as the bike scuttled away.

A certain type of person would blame "society" or enigmatic "social forces" for those kids' behavior. Maybe they went to underfunded schools. Maybe they live in a "food desert." Maybe they don't see enough black characters in television shows. Maybe—and this really is the point of this type of analysis—it is, in some attenuated way, my fault that these kids slapped my phone out of my hand.

The point is not that I care very much about my phone. I don't. My life probably would have improved if my phone broke when it hit the pavement. The point, and what I was struck by, is the depravity of the behavior—not that slapping a cell phone out of a person's hand is an especially grave crime, but that it was done for no other reason than the assumed suffering it would cause.

And that type of behavior is on the rise. Hundreds of teenagers in Chicago this weekend gathered for a so-called "teen takeover" of the city. They kicked in windshields, set vehicles on fire, looted stores, and brawled with police. One group surrounded a woman outside an apartment building, assaulted her, and took her belongings, while another stomped on the prone bodies of their peers.


Predictably, local leaders defended the rioters. State senator Robert Peters called the riots "a mass protest against poverty and segregation." Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson said "it is not constructive to demonize youth who have otherwise been starved of opportunities in their own communities.”

It might not be constructive to "demonize" them, exactly, but it is certainly not "constructive" to justify their criminal behavior on the grounds that they lack "opportunities." Plenty of teenagers lack "opportunities" and decline to loot a Walmart or assault a stranger to steal her purse.

It is not even clear from the videos that these kids are especially deprived. Some are wearing expensive sneakers. Most have cell phones. They are not starving children robbing a grocery store to get bread. They are causing suffering for the sake of causing suffering.

The question of why some kids are given to this behavior is worth asking. The answer is not "poverty and segregation," exactly, but it is rooted in a kind of despair. There is a felt need in the lives of people experiencing disorder to create disorder in the lives of others. Many of these kids have no formal discipline in their lives, no sources of authority, no structure or order in their homes. If their behavior is any indication, many do not believe in God, in Heaven, or certainly in Hell. That's not to excuse the kids or what they do. In fact, it is precisely to recognize their moral agency—many people despair, experience distress, and have tough upbringings, yet do not set cars on fire.

James Burnham said that civilizations in thrall to liberal values "are morally disarmed before those whom the liberal regards as less well off than himself.” The idea that society at large is culpable for these kids having assaulted strangers, torched people's property, and, yes, swatted a cell phone, is a symptom of the same disease.