Wednesday, August 31, 2005

On the Fragility of Human Nature

Watching the news reports as they come in about the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina, a number of random observations come to mind:

There's a fine line between what we perceive as greed and survival. It's easy for us, watching the horror on the sidelines, to be critical of the looters in New Orleans, pillaging their way through ruined stores, for food, water, clothing and (weirdly enough) high-end TV's and electronics (real useful when there's no power). Sure, some of the looters are probably the same ones who were carjacking and robbing people in the French Quarter just a few days ago, but most are those too poor to leave before Katrina hit and are just desperate for something, anything to cling to while the waters continue to rise. Put US in that same situation, no way out and death staring us in the face, and see what we do.

Having said that, any looter found to be armed, threatening police, National Guard or emergency personnel, ought to be shot on sight.

Never underestimate Mother Nature. Apparently a lot of people, particularly in Mississippi, were thinking Katrina would be like Camille in 1969 and stayed put, assuming that, since Camille didn't get them then, Katrina wouldn't get them this time. Surprise! Katrina was much bigger and much nastier than Camille even on her worst day. We think we've got Nature licked just because we can dam up her rivers and lakes, mine her riches out of the ground and tame the lesser mammals, but the Old Lady continues to pull the rug out from under us.

Numbers equal numbness. One person's death can be a tragedy; hundreds make our eyes glaze over. CNN was talking about Katrina's aftermath this morning then cut in with a special report about well over 600 dying in Baghdad during a Shiite religious celebration; most of the victims, women and children, were trampled in a stampede. The voice of the reporter barely changed in tone, but what was she supposed to do? Break down and weep? Natural disasters, even those as well covered as Katrina, create an enormity of scale that our small minds can barely comprehend. I cannot even imagine what the folks in FEMA see when they look at the reports.

The veneer of civilization is thinner than we think. Reports out of the disaster area have been talking about the lootings, but now it seems to be getting much worse, with armed carjackings and people walking up to reporters and cameramen demanding money or food, sometimes with weapons in their hands. It wouldn't surprise me if some of these people were in church on Sunday and with reputations of being "good" people. It doesn't take much, does it, to strip off that veneer of politeness, of consideration for others, and to reveal the animal instinct underneath that is willing to do just about anything to survive.

I'm not trying to be cynical about human nature, just realistic. I've been through a few hurricanes (mostly near misses) over the years and had to wait in long lines at Wal-Mart or Lowes for supplies and seen little old grandmotherly-types hoarding batteries and camp stove fuel cans. I know that, had Katrina taken the course it was supposed to have taken after going through South Florida, it might have been us taking the brunt of the winds and rain, not those poor souls in New Orleans, Mississippi and Alabama, and it might be me crawling over others to grab stuff out of the local grocery and convenience stores with the other looters.

Desperation breeds changes in our character that we cannot possibly imagine outside of it.

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