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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Among the Thugs Again: When It Goes Off

"You see, what is does is this: it gives violence a purpose. It makes us somebody. Because we're not doing it for ourselves. We're doing it for something greater-for us. The violence is for the lads"

Mark, resident Manchester United supporter, Among the Thugs

The reasons why devotion, especially religious devotion, turns, curdles, into violence are always rooted in some kind of structure, logic, and coherence. The practitioners of this violence can most always explain their propensities with some kind of link, some kind of thread, back to the root and heart of what they are devoted to and to why they are devoted to such a thing, whether it's a teaching of faith, their family, their community, their tribe, their nation, or some combination of all of these things. 

Mark Juergensmeyer, in his erudite and prophetic 2000 tome Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, writes that "it takes a community of support and, in many cases, a large organizational network for an act of terrorism to succeed. It also requires an enormous amount of moral presumption for the perpetrators of these acts to justify the destruction of property on a massive scale or to condone a brutal attack on another life, especially the life of someone one scarcely knows...And it requires a great deal of internal conviction, social acknowledgment, and the stamp of approval from a legitimizing ideology or authority one respects."

The blokes of English Football Saturday in Bill Buford's Among the Thugs certainly had built what seemed to be a fully functioning, hierarchical, multi-tiered Church and Community behind their devotion to Manchester United or West Ham or Millwall. The old standing-room terraces in their stadiums and dens was where the supporters offered their worship, crushed against each other, moving in what Buford described as a constant motion of shove and counter shove. The firms were the hierarchies the supporters adhered to, with the most proven in terms of their reputation for violence and bling, like fancy track suits, jewelry, and Rolls Royces, acquired from related and un-related criminal enterprising, at the head of the firm.

The violence and bling trickled down in the manner of the jib, in which the supporters, by the sheer quantity of their marauding, would find and take and steal anything they could on Football Saturday, from places in the terrace without having tickets, to handfuls of shoplifted bacon-flavoured potato crisps and lagers, and free stowaway passage on planes, buses, and trains all over England and even into Europe. 

The jib, which in many ways was the mechanism of the supporters' devotion, was based on the principle, Buford noted, that "everyone-including the police-is powerless against a large number of people who have decided not to obey any rules. Or put another way: with numbers there are no laws."

Buford noted that many of the supporters were tattooed, but not entirely quite like what Pete Townshend once wrote about. Marking their bodies with what Buford describes as "totemic pledges of permanence", such as great hellscapes with Man U Red Devils devouring famous players of other clubs in eternal flame, or simply with the names of club superstars like Bryan Robson running across the entire forehead, the devotion of these blokes was a matter of needle and blood. 

All in all, the rituals of Football Saturday were all well and structured. Everyone was there for the match and the drink and the laugh, and even if the blokes were a little rowdy at times, especially when they traveled to the foreigner's place, as Buford did with a number of Manchester United supporters to a 1984 Cup-Winners Cup match against Juventus in Turin, they claimed again that they meant well. That they most indeed not hooligans. 

The rudeness of the supporters, as noted by Buford, "was their vitality, and these people were very rude; they were committed to rudeness, as though it was their moral banner." 
They were boisterous, kleptomanic, and oafish because their devotion to their club was so much a part of their very identity, and their devotion was so strong, that anything which was counter to that devotion, like Juventus, or the people of Turin, whether these people were Juventus supporters or not, or anyone in the way of the cut of their jib, deserved their rudeness, simply because they were not a member of the Church.

Yet rudeness is one thing and brutal, rib-cracking, skull-crushing violence is another. The difference is what turns the supporters from blokes into thugs. The difference is when it goes off

Following the match in Turin, which the home-side Juventus won 2-1, to clinch a berth in the Cup-Winners Cup Final, where they beat FC Porto, 2-1, to win the Cup, in case you're keeping track of such things, the Man U supporters, with exquisitely disturbing precision and intent, reflecting and expressing the structure of their Church, "like some giant, strangely coordinated insect", laid waste to the people and places of Turin. Buford noted the sudden, startling change: "If anyone here was drunk, he was not acting as if he was. Everyone was purposeful and precise, and there was a strong quality of aggression about them, like some kind of animal scent. Nobody was saying a word."

It goes off. The threshold is crossed. The blokes encounter the Other. The blokes become thugs. They batter merchandise sellers, bashing heads repeatedly against the merchandise table. Shop windows, buses, and cars are assaulted by maniacs wielding giant blocks of concrete they shouldn't be able to carry aloft in more normal, more sober circumstances. They swarm upon local lads hopelessly caught in the mob, beaten to a pulp by six or seven supporters at a time, Yes, some of these local lads are Juventus' own firm, there to protect their turf, but many, all too many, are not. It is, by any definition, a riot. It is, by most definitions, terrorism.

Most disturbing is an encounter with a family caught in the mob of thugs. The husband, in a panic, is somehow able to get his wife and children in their car before he is set upon, struck across the face by a metal bar. Buford horrifically wonders "Why him?...What had he done except make himself conspicuous by trying to get his family out of the way?...The others followed, running on top of the man on the ground, sometimes slowing down to kick him-the head, the spine, the ass, the ribs, anywhere."

As much as there is a consistent consistency to the presence of coherence and reason within the phenomenon and practice of religious violence, to the ways and means devotion curdles into violence, there is always something profoundly incoherent and irrational to it as well. The mystery of religious violence which tortures us stands against the rational structures and ideologies which support it. The rationality of the structures and ideologies behind religious violence, which can be so easily identified when we widen our contextual lenses, only make the mystery of the irrationality deeper. 

We can only go so far in our study, our understanding, our attempts at sympathy. There is something so dark in human nature which emerges in this mysterious space which defies our intellect and stains our heart and soul. What causes someone who is so devoted to a cause, a club, a community, a deity of any sort, to decide the Other, whether or not this Other is a legitimate threat to the devotee's safety and well-being, must be violently attacked, even to the point of murder, of slaughter?

By this point in Buford's immersion, he clearly understands the structure of Football Saturday and the devotees of the clubs. He understands, and experiences, their rudeness. But when it goes off, when their devotion turns into violence, when they become thugs, the structure of it all becomes a horrific, unfathomable mystery. What is most mysterious of all, to Buford, was the emotional reactions of the thugs to the violence they were committing.

Buford writes:

There was an intense energy about it; it was impossible not to feel some of the thrill. Somebody near me said that he was happy. He said that he was very, very happy, that he could not remember ever being so was someone who believed that, at this precise moment, following a street scuffle, he had succeeded in capturing one of life's most elusive qualities.

Even when they are back in Manchester, far away from the animal scent of that evening in Turin, the supporters, even some of the most obviously successful ones, those with jobs and pensions and wives and kids (and Buford will clearly point out later in the book that the kind of economic depression which otherwise logically explains the phenomenon and practice of religious violence is not widely present with these highly privileged young English men) continue to express that their violence is a kind of emotional and spiritual necessity, that the violence is a part of their inherent being which can not not be expressed. 

Buford meets a Keith Richards look-alike who quite logically insists:

The violence, we've all got it in us. It just needs a cause. It needs an acceptable way of coming out. And it doesn't matter what it is. But something. It's almost an excuse. But it has to come out. Everyone's got it in them.

We go back to the lead quote, from Mark, one of those supporters with the job and the pension and the wife and the kid. For him, even for him, the violence "makes us somebody. Because we're not doing it for ourselves. We're doing it for something greater-for us. The violence is for the lads." There is nothing inherently wrong with the kind of devotion that brings atomized individuals together for a common cause and purpose, something "greater" than mere individualism. There is something inherently spiritual in such common cause. Yet there is something deeply wrong when the kind of violence the thugs commit is needed to justify and keep the devotion together, to make it stronger, to make it something real and meaningful. There is nothing spiritual about that (but is it still religious?)

It makes perfect sense, yet it is so, so disturbingly macabre, senseless, and mysterious. The violence and the devotion of the thugs is one-to-one, hand-in-hand. It makes perfect sense to the bloke why he becomes a thug. To those of us observing the thug, studying the thug, we are horrified, perhaps because we know these tendencies are not ultimately foreign to our own experience and nature. Buford, again recalling an encounter with one of the materially successful supporters, writes that "he was rational and fluent, and had given much thought to the problems he was discussing, although he had not thought about the implications of the thing-that this was socially deviant conduct of the highest order...I don't think he understood the implications; I don't think he would have acknowledged them as valid."

The deeper Buford gets into the crowd of the thugs, the more clear and the less clear it becomes. In our next blog, we will examine Buford looking at the nature of the crowd itself, the phenomenon of the crowd, when the morals and ethics and boundaries that we, as civilized individual citizens, hold dear and claimed that our ancestors fought and died for, disappear under the influence of that mysterious compulsion which turns sanity into insanity, bonds into bones breaking, devotion into violence. 

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