Disaster is a flaming-hot crucible that changes people. It burns away the veneer of social graces, those extraneous bits we present to others, and reveals our true nature. During the crucible of tragedy of the Twin Towers, some people fled, shoving and trampling others in their rush to get to safety, while some deliberately put their lives on the line to help friends or strangers. In the disaster that is Katrina, we have seen true heroes like the doctors and nurses doing everything they can to keep hospital patients alive while the rising waters knocked out their power. We have seen people risk their lives to rescue others. Sometimes they were pulling their loved ones out of the water, but many times the people were strangers. Regardless, these people helped.
But not everyone rises to the occasion. Too often the base and violent aspects of human nature are revealed. In the wake of most disasters, looters crawl out of the wreckage and work their destruction on a neighborhood already reeling from pain. I do not blame the people who broke into a supermarket to retrieve necessary food, water and medicine. They did what they had to do to stay alive. Nor do I blame the good-hearted people who rooted for necessary items like diapers, medicines and food and brought them to suffering thousands in the Superdome. But I do not understand people who looted luxury goods, items they wanted but did not need. Gold jewelry is pretty, but it isn’t edible, and you can’t boil water with the 39″ TV you just obtained via a “Katrina discount.” I can understand getting some clean clothes if everything you own has been washed away, but I have difficulty seeing the need for an armful of designer jeans. I guess it is the difference between needs and wants. You need that food, but you only want that Xbox.
Why do people loot the things they want rather than the things they need? During the L.A. riots after the Rodney King trial, some people availed themselves of a “riot discount” at stores in their neighborhoods. A common justification I heard was that the store owners charged too much for their goods, and the looters were therefore entitled to take what they wanted. The key word in that excuse is “entitled.” The looters didn’t earn these goods, but because they wanted the stuff and because they felt they should by rights have the stuff, they took it. “I want it, therefore it’s mine” describes the feeling of entitlement. If you look around, you can see a certain percentage of people expressing the feeling that just because they exist, they should get. Young children often express this feeling of entitlement, but responsible parents teach them that this is not the way the world works. At some point, a child has to learn that he will not get that new toy just because he wants it. Unfortunately, not everyone learns this lesson in childhood.
New York City is huge. There have been massive power failures in this metropolis on three different occasions: 1965, 1977, and 2003. When the power went out in 1965, the people sat in the stranded subway cars singing, telling stories, and passing around any food and drink they had on hand. When the power went out twelve years later, in 1977, there was widespread looting. Why the difference? What changed in a single decade to turn the people of New York from peaceful chatting to lawless looting? It was the same city and the same kind of blackout; the one variable that changed was people’s attitudes. I can only point to President Johnson’s War on Poverty as the reason for this attitude change. Johnson’s “Great Society” programs were created to bring the poor and impoverished out of their miserable state, but that didn’t happen; instead, we have more poor today than in the 1960s. Quinn’s First Law explains why that didn’t happen: “Liberalism always generates the exact opposite of its stated intent.” By 1977, there had been a decade of handouts to the poor; coupled with those handouts was the expressed belief that the poor were entitled to get what they did because their lives were bad. I believe it was this new sense of entitlement that fueled the looting in 1977. When people saw others looting, they felt the need to get what they deserved before others beat them to it, so they joined in. I would have expected the same kind of looting during the 2003 blackout, but there was one major variable that changed it — September 11th, 2001. I firmly believe that, had the 2003 blackout happened in 2000, the looting would have been widespread. But since the blackout took place after 9/11, the people of New York had forged a new sense of community; they were less inclined to take things from others in their community. And having seen so many police and firefighters lay down their lives in 2001, I think the quick deployment of uniformed officers also helped stem the looting in 2003.
Another type of person to rise up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is the hater. These are they who shake their fists at President Bush, their mayor, and their governor, and hate them all for not being there for them. Professor Ron Walters of the University of Maryland said, “Black people are mad because they feel the reason for the slow response is because those people are black and they didn’t support George Bush.” I cannot and do not believe that Hurricane Katrina relief was slow in coming because so many people affected are black. For one thing, I distinctly remember hearing on the news a general sense of relief that the hurricane wasn’t nearly as bad as people had anticipated. It wasn’t until the news came that the levee had broken that people realized how much damage had been done. Jesse Jackson didn’t outright label racism as the reason for a slow aid response, but he believed it was a factor. He said, “We [Americans] have an amazing tolerance for black pain.” I can only speak for myself, but I have a low tolerance for pain in others. That is why my wife and I have decided to do our part to help, rather than pointing a finger of hate and crying “racism.”
Speaking of pointing a finger, there is a final group I will discuss: those who are busy pointing the finger of blame. Some are outraged that Secretary of State Condi Rice went shopping and attended a play while others in the federal government were burning the midnight oil to aid the hurricane sufferers. But in none of the articles and blogs I read did anyone point out that the responsibilities of the Secretary of State are largely foreign in nature. That is why Secretary Rice is usually sent to visit other heads of state around the world. There are others in the federal government with the actual responsibility of dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters, and they have been working. I have written how people have been blaming President Bush and America for causing global warming that they believe created the hurricane. People are also blaming President Bush for not evacuating Louisiana and Mississippi, but they seem to ignore the fact that it is the primary responsibility of city mayors and state governors to move their people in times of danger. The federal government cannot jump in unless it is invited, and the invitation didn’t come in a timely manner. Senator Hillary Clinton has called for a “9/11-style probe” into the federal government’s response to the hurricane. But as more and more news comes out about the 9/11 Commission and how it ignored the Able Danger reports, I’m skeptical that this is the type of probe we need. I do know that this is not the time to start laying blame. We will need a good, complete investigation to see why plans that called for using school and city buses to move the people out of New Orleans were not followed, but that can wait until the people are safe. Now is the time to aid, not blame — no matter how easy or tempting it is to point the finger of blame at someone.
My wife was looking at these looters, haters, and blamers and trying to figure out the right word to describe them. We agreed that the most descriptive word is “ghouls,” the monsters who feed off the dead. She also found a poem, a section of which seems most appropriate:
And the people — ah, the people –
They that dwell up in the steeple,
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone –
They are neither man nor woman –
They are neither brute nor human –
They are Ghouls…
– Edgar Allan Poe, “The Bells”