Wilding, Times Square and the Psychology of the City

Deconstructing what happened in Times Square

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    NEWSLETTERS

    NBCNewYork.com

    Mayor Bloomberg called it "wilding". One top police official told me it was a congregation of "troublemakers looking to meet each other."

    Whatever the explanation for what happened on Easter Night in Times Square, many New Yorkers are concerned about it. And they’re mystified about what caused it.

    The term "wilding," used by the Mayor, referred to an infamous incident from 1989: the Central Park jogger rape case.

    On this Easter Sunday night, hundreds of young people pour out of the subways. On this Easter, they hurled bottles. They roughed each other up. By the end of the night, four people had been shot, 54 arrested. It was similar to incidents on two previous Easter Sundays, except that this night was more violent, though nobody was seriously wounded.

    What causes people to gather in mobs bent on mayhem? Some of the world’s greatest philosophers have pondered that question. Sigmund Freud’s theory was that people in crowds act differently than those who are thinking individually -- and one becomes less aware of one’s actions.

    Cyrus Vance, the new Manhattan DA, , had tough words. "My office is extremely concerned about the threat to public safety these cases represent, and we will treat these cases with the attention and seriousness they deserve."

    I spoke to a New York University sociologist about the perception some people have that there’s a new ritual that has caught on with our young people.

    Dr. Ruth Horowitz cautioned against allowing a perception to become a reality. "How much," she asked, "does the hype cause the perception? Is there a danger that we are creating a ‘tradition’ that does not truly exist?’"

    She pointed out also that, when a large number of young people get together in one place, 99 percent of them may be well-behaved and law abiding. But, she added, "there will always be one or two percent who might cause trouble."

    A police source said that what happened in Times Square "was youth-on-youth violence, the kind of disorder that, 50 years ago, would not have involved the cops at all."

    Perhaps. But it’s understandable that incidents like these can cause some anxiety. It’s hard to disagree with Vance when he says: "New York cannot take one step backward in our fight to keep our streets safe."

    Yet, with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly at the helm these last eight years, great advances have been made in curbing crime. We are fortunate to have a commissioner who, despite budget cuts, has commanded a reduced force that brought down crime by 35 percent.

    The moral, I guess, is that we have to keep cool. Crazy incidents may occur in Times Square or elsewhere. But the police deserve our admiration and support.