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Miscellaneous thoughts and ramblings
Friday, September 02, 2005
The Thin Veneer of Civilization
The aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans and Mississippi is getting attention which is much-deserved. But I'm struck by a part of the story that hasn't had much play. (ball-and-chain actually told me that Dennis Prager talked about this, but I didn't hear him.) I'm struck by how fragile civil society is. I've been camping and hiking in relatively uninhabited areas, but I never really felt that I had left civilization. At the most remote, I was never more than a few hours away from emergency medical care in an American hospital. I was never without a buddy who could get help if I was injured. I never ran out of food or water.

For a few days New Orleans left civilization. There is no reasonable way to still call what is left there a city. New Orleans is a former city. No one really expected what nature did to New Orleans, though a city built below sea level should expect occasional flooding. The biggest surprise to me, though, was how people behaved. It seems that if you turn off water, power, and phones, and keep the police away for a few days, civilization dissolves. There was looting, rapes, and murders on a scale that won't be clearly documented for months, if ever. In 48 hours the rules of citizenship crumbled and were replaced by the law of the jungle. I wonder if this is universal. I wonder if some groups of men in desperate situations with no law enforcement anticipated would still behave according to the law simply because they think of the law not as a cop's baton but as a contract they each have with one another. Maybe not, but if not, then civilization is only a thin veneer of modern conveniences shellacked over our very primitive nature. I would like to be very disappointed at the roving gangs that took over New Orleans, but I guess I would have to know that not all people behave similarly in those conditions.

Meanwhile all of us should double-check that we have enough nonperishable food and bottled water in our house for our entire families for a few days, and think about a plan to keep your family safe if your home is suddenly in the jungle.

Oh, and one last thing. Without even discussing it with me, ball-and-chain did the right thing. She gave some money through the Salvation Army website. If you own a home which is still standing, and all your loved ones have plenty to eat, you should too.
I've been wondering about the same issue.

Of course, human beings have always had a dual nature. We're capable of the most selfless acts of sacrifice and the most barbaric acts of cruelty. The question is, why does a whole community tilt in the direction of selflessness on one occasion, while another tilts in the direction of barbarism on another occasion? It's a Lord of the Flies scenario.

There was an article in the Globe and Mail on the subject this week. I don't think you'll like the author's thesis much:

In U.S. cities like New Orleans, in the analysis of the American-British organizational psychologist Cary Cooper, social cohesion depends on a shared belief that individual hard work, good luck and God's grace will bring a person out of poverty and into prosperity. But those very qualities can destroy the safety net of mutual support that might otherwise help people in an emergency.

"Fear itself motivates people in the U.S. — the fear that you could lose everything," Prof. Cooper said in an interview yesterday from his office at the University of Lancaster. "That creates the best in American society, the inventiveness, but the moment the net is pulled out, it becomes a terrible jungle."

It is true that other societies have a communal way of life, where chronically poor people rely on each other to survive. Apparently society didn't break down so badly in Indonesia and Sri Lanka after the tsunami.

Nor did social breakdown happen in the USA in the wake of 9/11. The damage was more localized, it's true, but the police force was also in disarray. The opportunity for looting and anarchy had to be considerable. But 9/11 was the result of an enemy attack, which probably changed the psychology of the event.

In New Orleans, instead of supporting one another, people went the other way: "I'm going to take what you have." But even that doesn't explain shooting at rescue helicopters.

I don't think we'll ever have an adequate explanation of the phenomenon. But it's a shocking reminder of how low human beings can sink when law and order breaks down. And that can happen easily in a society that relies so heavily on fragile technology.
New Orleans statistics (from 2000):
Population 484,674
Blacks 67.3%
Whites 28.1%
Median Income $27,133.

New Orleans crime (from 2003):
Violent crimes 4,596
Homicides 274
Rate 9.7 per 1,000 people
(Source http://www.epodunk.com/cgi-bin/genInfo.php?locIndex=3502)

1. Civilization is stronger in some places and weaker in other places. Case in point: Earlier this year a landslide destroyed many homes in Laguna Beach, CA. Over 1,000 people were evacuated. No looting, raping, or murdering. The Red Cross set up facilities for the evacuees (God bless them) and - guess what - to their surprise, no one showed up.

2. We all have some say in where we live. We should avoid those places where civilization is weak - like Iraq. We should also avoid those places where potential catastrophe is obvious (even if unlikely) - like the base of a volcano, in front of a dam, major fault lines, and twelve feet below sea level along the coast.

3. I don't know how many citizens of New Orleans took advantage of the catastrophe to engage in criminal activity. If it was a small number, then it is a shame that it only takes a few evildoers to lay a civilization to waste. I imagine that is what frustrates the good people of Iraq and the good people of Israel.
You are right that the people of New Orleans left civilization. They were abandoned by the "buddy who could get help" and they ran out of food and water.

It is a shonda. Rather than thinking about what civilization is and rules and so on, it is more important to hold those responsible for the fiasco of the response to the disaster. If President Bush can admit that the Federal response to the disaster was "unacceptable," then surely it was worse that that. We can philosophize on the nature of man, and on the rules of citizenship. But in this case, the rules of citizenship meant little to these American citizens who did not warrant the immediate attention of their own government. Their citizenship also apparently meant little to the government charged with promoting their general welfare and failed to do so (or did too little almost too late). Society, and the compact between the governed and the government (with all its accoutrements including law and order) therefore broke down to some extent.

Rape and murder are obviously inexcusable. But is it really looting when you have no food to eat, no potable water to drink and no medicine to treat your illness? Is it really looting when the buddy who was supposed to help didn't show up?

I think it is clear that not all people behave similarly in those conditions. The vast majority didn't. I read of one man who "looted" a Wal-Mart in New Orleans. He said he took some PowerBars, some plastic bottles of orange juice and some diapers. He said he carefully wrote down what he took, and planned to send payment to Wal-Mart when he could. Is he a looter?

I can only close by inviting you to honestly imagine the Federal government's response if Katrina had hit Kennebunkport (or even Houston or Laguna Beach!). Probably a little different, no? Why do you think that is? Be very careful when you say civilization is stronger or weaker in New Orleans or any place for that matter. I hope you don't mean what I think you mean.

A) What qualitative difference do you imagine between New Orleans and Houston?

B) Can you honestly look at the looting that happened in New Orleans, and attempt to gloss over it as a few folks attempting to feed themselves, when the reality (people attempting to enrich themselves... stereos, t.v's etc.) was so clearly apparent?
All: The thing is, I agree with all of you.
1-People stealing food when there is none (and when the store will not reopen, maybe ever) is not looting.
2-The word inexcusable is not strong enough for the fact that, though CNN was *broadcasting* from the convention center, the FEMA director said that he did not know people were trapped there.
3-The word disgusting is not strong enough to convey the revulsion I feel at people who would use this opportunity to steal VCRs, rape and fire at rescue helicopters
Drat, signed in wrong! How big of a doofus can I be?
Didn't Hobbes and Locke and those kinda guys have something to say about this sorta thing?
Let's not forget that the residents of New Orleans knew a hurricane was coming and were told to evacuate. If you would not or could not leave, would you make sure you had enough medicine, water, and baby diapers to last for a few days? You might not, if (A) you're an imbecile, (B) you are secure in the knowledge that the government will take care of your every need, or (C) you're waiting for the "100% off, Everything-Must-Go" sales immediately following the storm.

Stealing food is not looting? It is if the only reason you're out of food is that you couldn't be bothered to prepare for an oncoming hurricane.
Oven, you're awfully close to blaming the victims here. These are people whose incomes were below $10,000 per year. I doubt they had the extra cash to purchase even a few days' supplies in advance. We're talking about people who live hand to mouth.
Yeah, I gotta agree with Q. It's not like there were any checkers at the market so you could *pay* for the stuff. Also, what happens if your home got flooded. That kinda ruins diapers, 'ya know.
The federal response to the disaster was inordinately slow, but it is irresponsible politicism to blame the looting on Bush. Move on with that argument.

It is beyond looting. Looking for food in a wasteland of a former city is foraging and surviving. Shooting at rescue workers, commandeering food trucks heading to nursing homes, and running off with armfuls of clothing and electronics is criminal profiteering.

Watching this was like watching some old post-apocalyptic scifi movie, except that it was being broadcast in real-time from the spot. Yes, I also wondered why the disaster in NY brought out the best in people, while this one brought out the worst.

But why are the networks trying to justify it? Why do we here these thugs being referred to as "gunmen"? That is the term they used to use for terrorists in Israel or Iraq. Will we soon hear them referred to as 'militants'?
You're right. They had no choice but to loot after the first day, when their stockpiles of food ran out and their extra diapers were destroyed by water damage.
Oven: Wow, kinda harsh. Yes, this disaster seems to have brought out some of the worst in people and not the best. The reason for the differnce will not be easily explained. Simple answers are insufficient. However, Since some subject are simply taboo these days, a real, detailed analysis of the problem (and solutions to keep it from happening again) will never be done. I just throw up my hands.
Good discussion. Since we're talking about the same points, I won't address each comment separately.

Unfortunately, it looks like there's plenty of blame to spread around. First of all, disaster preparedness is not primarily a federal function. It is a local and state function. New York obviously brought a lot of its own resources to bear on 9/11. There's no question that New Orleans and Louisiana performed terribly here. Both the mayor and the governor showed no leadership other than bad-mouthing Washington. Having said that, and as much as I'd love to defend the administration, I gotta admit that FEMA did quite poorly also. FEMA is not supposed to be a first responder, but you'd think they should be there a few days later. They just weren't.

Finally, and most painfully, I think some of the blame falls (or at least the responsibility) squarely on the residents. Q cites a liberal article that blames the disaster response failure on rugged individualism. Nomad, in a more recent post, links an article that blames the disaster response on the welfare state. I haven't read either, but I like Q's response (in the other thread) that these are both simplistic analyses of a complex failure. Let me explain.

I've been reading The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life and will post a review when I finish. It's methodically documented and very eye-opening. I strongly recommend it. It was roundly attacked when it was first published, but not a single one of its findings (as far as I know) has been contested. It argues that intelligence is very strongly correlated to lots of important things in American life, like income, intact families, "civic behavior" (voting, being politically informed), and staying out of the criminal justice system. Surprisingly, intelligence predicts many of these things better than any other single factor including factors you would think would be more important, like level of education or socio-economic status.

So take a city full of uneducated, poor people. Statistically, The Bell Curve suggests that these people, on average are of much lower intelligence than the average American. Obviously, a statistical measure means that you shouldn't use this information to prejudge any individual, but it tells us something about the group. In fact, because people tend to marry, live near, and work near people of similar intelligence. And because everyone reading this can express themselves in writing and has access to a computer, it is very likely that none of us know anyone socially with cognitive skills as poor as the average person who stayed behind in New Orleans.

So Oven, I think the answer is (A). Many of the residents were imbeciles, though that's not the best choice of words.

Add to this the terrible effects of affirmative action, in which government agencies have to have a racial distribution that approximates that of the population they serve, regardless of the mix of applicants, their interest, or qualifications. It becomes less mystifying then that civil servants (cops, fire fighters) left the job and behaved poorly. In a race-blind application system, many of them would not have been in those positions. Add to this the local government corruption that is frequently taken for granted in the South, and you have a recipe for a government that dissolves into self-interested ne'er-do-wells as soon as law enforcement is lax.

I remain agnostic about looting for food. There was no way for the stores to regain the value from their stock. The stock was for all purposes a loss. I can't object if people took food even if it was just because they were too dumb to plan ahead.

Wanderer: I should let Oven speak for himself, but since I know him and I know you I feel comfortable saying that I'm nearly positive he didn't mean that African Americans are less civilized than whites.

Ralphie: I never got Hobbes and Locke in college. Teach me.
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