Behavior of stressed disaster survivors draws eyes of experts

Some see an indictment of the culture, while others rail at lawlessness

Katrina's Wake

September 02, 2005|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

When Courtland Robinson watched the scenes of survivors picking their way through flooded streets of New Orleans this week, the Baltimore disaster specialist thought of the aftermath of last year's tsunami.

But in Indonesia, where the earthquake and the wave hit most severely, there weren't too many places left to loot. This time, the initial horror of the Gulf Coast's hurricane and flooding was amplified by the shock of knowing that people were stealing television sets and even guns.

"There's a dark underside to any humanitarian crisis: the reality that victims don't necessarily become saints because they are displaced by a tsunami or Hurricane Katrina," said Robinson, a public health professor at the Johns Hopkins University. "People in crisis often behave in ways that take them beyond the bounds of ordinary moral constraints."

In his travels to places like Thailand, Cambodia and Sudan, Robinson has seen looting and violence in the aftermath of war and famine.

"When things break down, life is not ordinarily what it would be," he said. "The store managed by someone you know, the street ordinarily patrolled by a policeman - both become part of a wilderness. You're part of a frontier, even if it is the same place you occupied in a very ordinary way only days before. ... You get angry and desperate. You get upset that no one's taking care of you."

As stories and scenes pour forth from New Orleans, sociologists, political scientists and ethicists are among the viewers watching the behavior of fearful and stressed people who have lost homes and loved ones. They suggest that the hurricane's devastation has triggered far more acts of heroism and generosity than selfishness. But the sight of looting adds a second wave of trauma and makes many observers cringe.

One lifelong New Orleans resident, attorney C.B. Forgotston, railed against the attitude of state and local government toward such lawlessness.

"The looting is simply inexcusable," he wrote in an e-mail. "It's bad enough to know that our homes and businesses have been damaged and are probably going underwater ... but to see looters walking off with our few remaining possessions while the law enforcement officials literally watch and the TV cameras roll is beyond human comprehension."

Others were more pragmatic. Lewis Yablonsky, a criminologist and professor emeritus at California State University, Northridge, said law enforcers should forget about looters and concentrate on saving lives.

"The situation is such that you can't arrest anyone," he said. "Where are you going to put them? You've already got people sitting in the roadways there in the sun, starving and without water."

Yablonsky said many of those stealing food were just trying to survive. He suggested that police assign someone to videotape looters taking electronics and other nonessentials and worry about making arrests later.

For Rushworth Kidder, president of the Institute for Global Ethics and author of Moral Courage, the sight of looters, most of them inner-city residents, suggested the need to close the economic gap between the "haves and have-nots."

"It seems to me that when the culture is careless of others, then others end up being careless of the culture," he said. "In some ways, this [aftermath] is a very interesting indictment of the culture we've been building. It's a kind of final exam, and we haven't done so well. We don't get an F - people aren't killing each other to get into stores - but I'd give us about a D."

What might an A look like?

"You'd be watching four or five grandparents standing with their arms folded in the doors of the Kmart saying, `No you don't! It's not my money I'm defending, but this is wrong. Go back home!' And the typically adolescent kids flooding up to the doors would say, `Yeah, all right.'

"What we have here is not a failure of the black community or the Creole community," Kidder added, "but of the broad culture in which all of this nests. It's a sobering moment for all of us."

"Whenever there's a major crisis and the social system breaks down, some people are going to rise to the occasion and others will do just the opposite," said criminologist Gary LaFree, director of the National Center for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

"In New Orleans, there's a large population that feels very disenfranchised - something like 25 percent are living below the poverty line - and in a situation where the rules break down, quite a number of people probably feel they don't have to follow the rules. They don't have any loyalty to them.

"Criminologists call this neutralization: Some people feel they've gotten such a lousy deal in life that the rules don't apply to them."

The same goes for people of privilege pushed into an extreme situation.

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