The United States is Now in the Midst of an Extended Moral Holiday

When the going gets tough, the law gets suspended

Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: Graeme Wood is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.

Theft is no joke, but when I saw a video of the Microsoft Store in Midtown Manhattan being looted early this month, I confess that I laughed like a madman. The looters appeared to be young, and the Microsoft Corporation was, last I checked, not the hippest brand in the under-30 demographic. What were these miscreants looting? Copies of Microsoft Access? Windows 10 updates? It has been decades since I was a teenager, wearing a leather jacket and sneakers, advertising my devotion to Encarta and Clippy, the effortlessly cool mascot of Microsoft Word. But here the kids were, leaping over broken glass to swipe any Microsoft products they could grab. They can’t all have snagged Xboxes.

But rather than just guffaw at the eternal squareness of Microsoft, we should consider what this enthusiasm for stolen Microsoft products means. It reminded me of another scene, this one from the looting that followed the 1992 acquittal of the officers who’d beaten Rodney King. A Los Angeles Times photographer caught a teenager scrambling out of a shop with, under each arm, a looted Thighmaster—a faddish workout device marketed to middle-aged women. No one needs two of these. Teenage boys don’t even need one. But there he was, a running demonstration that looting is no ordinary form of theft.

The protests following George Floyd’s death have been mostly peaceful, of course. And in some cases where riots started, police violence preceded violence. The looting that did occur—for now mostly subsided, in no small measure because of the disgust at looting displayed by many protesters themselves—is best understood as ritualized lawbreaking. You completely misunderstand it if you treat it as simple theft, just as you will fail to understand police violence if you treat it as simple brutality.

The concept that defines this moment is, I think, the “moral holiday.” In 1904, William James coined the phrase approvingly, not as a tut-tutting Victorian-era moralist but with something like the opposite impulse. Moral burdens crush and cripple us, and we all need a temporary break to “let the world wag in its own way, feeling that its issues are in better hands than ours and are none of our business.” More recently the term has come to connote a period of exertion, of doing things one normally knows are wrong. Usually a moral holiday happens in a raucous crowd, when everyone decides at once that certain rules don’t apply. The first brick through a window signals the beginning of the moral holiday.

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The United States is now in the midst of an extended moral holiday, in both senses. I see many manifestations of this moral holiday converging, and two in particular: first, the orgy of violence on display by supposed law-enforcement officers long before the current protests began; and second, the looting, vandalism, and other forms of public lawbreaking by rioters at the fringe of the earliest protests. This second form of lawbreaking, occurring over a period measured in days, is as nothing compared with the steady accumulation of police violence over decades. What these phenomena have in common is an implicit sense that we are in a time of accelerating change, making what was forbidden suddenly licit. Criminal acts that were heretofore shameful, such as beating unarmed, peaceful protesters or burgling a hair salon, are now performed in full knowledge that dozens of cellphone cameras are turned in your direction.

A moral holiday involves the belief that because the going has gotten tough, the law is suspended. And in law enforcement, the belief that the going is tough, or could turn tough at any moment, is a cornerstone of much training and acculturation. Cops prepare for the worst-case scenario—and speaking to civilians respectfully is difficult when one of your top priorities is ensuring they are outgunned and dominated at all times. (If I were a cop, I would probably prepare myself for the day when someone lunged for my gun or tried to stab me; I would watch graphic videos like the ones I describe here, because my life might depend on it.)  I have had roughly one interaction with U.S. police a year for the past five years. Twice I have been searched; once, I was physically restrained, although I had not resisted the officers. In every case, I could hear a distinctive performance in the cops’ voices, which are trained to project volume and authority. Police control the interaction by deciding who speaks when, and about what. They are armed, and immunized from consequences if they use violence. When speaking to me, they used this style of interaction not because I am a large man and potential threat. During one search, I was cradling a baby.

Many jobs, such as logging and garbage collection, involve a greater risk of death than being a cop. But unlike most people, police officers do a job that requires contact with strangers who may be armed and agitated or malevolent. The sociologist Randall Collins, who has written at length about the moral-holiday phenomenon in riots, notes the effect of worst-case-scenario training for police in riot situations. Riots are one long series of exactly the sort of unpredictable interactions cops try to avoid at all costs. Even without this fear of uncontrolled interaction, riots are more disorienting for police than one might imagine. Collins and the sociologist Anne Nassauer note that much cop work involves enforcing laws concerning property. In a riot, cops often have too few resources to deal with property crimes, because they have to focus instead on preventing physical harm to people. In these chaotic situations, Collins and Nassauer say, suddenly one of their main cop tasks is no longer part of their job, and indeed is something they have to ignore. The pressure builds against the dam of their experience.

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The result is brutality—on Twitter, the criminal-defense attorney T. Greg Doucette has compiled hundreds of video clips of violent acts by police—but brutality of a special kind, distinct from the violence that police are permitted to inflict. Cops behave as though basic departmental rules against, for instance, hitting people wantonly with clubs have been suspended. As in the situation that Collins calls “forward panic,” the fear-stricken police stop acting as autonomous moral individuals and instead concentrate extreme violence on the vulnerable. If the first brick signals the beginning of a moral holiday for looters, the first thwack of a truncheon signals a moral holiday for cops primed to react to the unknown with fear and loathing. Cops are armed and used to wielding power on their own terms. Such a person, unconstrained by normal moral inhibitions, can be an absolute menace.

Similarly for rioters, societal rules stop applying, and the looting becomes a community-building exercise. Paradoxically, the most noteworthy aspects of looting are its orderliness and public-spiritedness. In a true Purge-style eruption of criminality, one might expect to see rivals for one of those Xboxes stabbing one another, or climbing over the fallen to get one of the Surface tablets left on the shelves. Instead I have heard no reports of anything but cooperation among looters, and in fact have seen evidence of felonious largesse, as in this video from the journalist Simon Ostrovsky of a man distributing stolen iPads to strangers out of the front of a Manhattan Best Buy. Some of the order emerges from the presence of organized theft operations. But as in many other riots (and every one I have witnessed), the crime is an expression of solidarity, a collective act of targeted disinhibition: Everyone is not only taking a moral holiday at once, but also taking the same moral holiday. One reason for a demonstration is to show solidarity. This is one way to do it. The point is not the Thighmaster. It is the shared act of robbing someone.

Like most robberies, looting is terrible and should not be romanticized. Many of the lions of the civil-rights movement disdained the looting in the 1960s, for the same reasons ordinary protesters are excoriating looters today: They besmirched the movement and gave easy cover to those who would deny black Americans the rights of citizenship. Some who have studied looting have characterized it as a “lashing-out against capitalism, the police, and other forces that are seen as perpetuating racism,” to borrow a phrase from my colleague Olga Khazan. One could argue, as the historian Kellie Carter Jackson recently did in The Atlantic, that “violence is a valid means of producing social change,” but I doubt even she would endorse spontaneous and random brutality against grocery stores, independent shops and salons, and Microsoft. The righteous can aspire instead to the targeted violence of Tony Soprano, who told his therapist, “I want to direct my power and my fucking anger against the people in my life that deserve it.”

My own inclination is to hold the line, and to embrace nonviolence—as indeed most of the protesters have—as both the more effective tool (in this case) and the moral one. The Tahrir Square revolution, which overthrew the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak with little bloodshed by the revolutionaries, convinced me that disciplined nonviolent action could rip an authoritarian regime significantly more brutal than the city of Minneapolis out by its roots. In New Haven, Connecticut, where I live, the growth of protests—which have remained nonviolent—seems to bear out the political scientist Gene Sharp’s argument that violence draws the support of a violent few, while nonviolence demonstrates to everyone else that they too have a way to contribute to the cause. Turnout at protests increases without sacrificing order, and it grows virally. Violence is blamed, rightly, on the side that is violent. Remember Martin Gugino, the 75-year-old man who was assaulted by Buffalo, New York, police and fell to the pavement with blood gushing from his ear. If he shoved a cop every day of his life, he would never achieve the effect of being shoved just once by one.

My aversion to violence isn’t absolute, but it is profound, and I think most people share it. To suppress that aversion takes mental habituation and placement in a situation of exceptional fear and fury that triggers a moral vacation. That vacation cannot end too soon, because hard work lies ahead, including the work of effective protest.