September 2nd, 2005

A hairy situation

Yay for guns!

It's interesting to me that nobody's really talking about the role guns are playing in the New Orleans disaster. The first places the looters raided were guns stores, clearing out their stock of sophisticated firearms and enough ammunition to shoot for a days. It was only once they were armed that they went for the flat-screen television sets and jewelry that people are getting up in arms about (Personally I can't bring myself to give a damn about flat screens or bling one way or another right now. Steal it, don't steal it, it's all going to be wrecked by the water anyway. Those judging looters should try seeing their houses being covered in 20 feet of water with unguarded riches that they've wanted their whole life just sitting around looking abandoned. See whether you'd be tempted or not.)

To me the interesting thing is the guns. The NRA and other groups who like shooting always hammer the claim "The guns will make us safer" into our heads to combat the weird idea gun-haters have that sophisticated weaponry is dangerous. It's true there have been individual stories of New Orleans gun owners defending their property (Property...that's what matters right now. Property.) with their weapons, but there's also a bigger collective story about what happens when things go really wrong in an armed society. This is a story that includes armed gangs roving the streets taking whatever they want and easily overwhelming the police force. This is a story where snipers set up shop outside of hospitals and where people shoot at rescue helicopters. It's a story that includes federal emergency management agency operations being suspended because the city can't be made safe for them without the army coming in. People are saying the looters should be shot on sight because there doesn't seem to be another way to get them to stop with the really bad things they are doing, including rape and murder. When someone has a gun and a pocketful of bullets asking nicely just seems like a waste of time.

At some point force must be countered with greater force. That's a terrible fact of life, but a fact of life nonetheless. The question is how high you have to escalate the use of force to gain control. Right now the answer is looking to be "Pretty fucking high." I'm not saying anything one way or another about the fact that we are basically the only civilized society to be this loaded up with guns (Canada doesn't count as civilized, have you SEEN what passes for bacon up there?) I'm just saying that it's an interesting question we aren't asking, let alone answering.

I don't think you can successfully argue that what's going on in New Orleans counts as a well-regulated militia or that it is helping the security of a free state, but there's an even older law it seems to be following. Something about reaping and sowing.
A hairy situation

In Defense of Looters

A lot of people have been lashing out at the looters recently. Neal Boortz and others have charmingly suggested they be shot on sight, and even those who don't think that mass killings are the answer seem to believe that anybody who would take advantage of a hurricane to steal shoes or electronics is beneath contempt.

I don't.

Imagine the situation. You wake up one morning to find your city in chaos, much of it underwater or just flat out gone. Maybe you were one of the stupid people who decided to ride out the storm in your house. More likely you were just poor or sick, and thus unable to evacuate even if you wanted to. People were expected to find their own way out of the city, even though airports and bus terminals shut down days before Katrina actually hit. If you don't own a car or didn't have enough money to buy a ticket out, guess what, you're staying. Period.

So you're there in your city and it's absolute chaos. Maybe you relaxed a little after the radio or TV told you that the storm had passed, only to have the levees break. Your electricity is out so you're getting no information from outside. The authorities aren't helping, if you can find them. People are being told to evacuate to various places only to find nothing for them when they get there. No food, no water, no transportation, no hope. The bodies are piling up.

What do you do? Well first you might try to secure food and water by whatever means necessary, sure, but after that? Do you just sit patiently by and hope you don't die of disease before someone decides to get you out of there? Do you go to the superdome which is more like the Thunderdome from that Mad Max movie than a place of civilization? Perhaps. But maybe you decide to try and make it on your own, because you're poor and likely black and damn it you don't trust the authorities. Nor should you. The authorities screwed the pooch on this one. The authorities left you there with no way out. Did the authorities send the school buses to come get you back when there were days left to evacuate and it was relatively simple? No. What makes you think they'll do so now that everything's gone to hell?

So people are reacting with their gut animal instincts. They are trying to get as much loot as they can because they've been abandoned, and it's been abandoned, and damn it they are without realistic hope or a plan so they might as well indulge. Some are trying to break into cars so they'll have transportation. Some want big screen TVs or jewelry or shoes. Maybe for barter, maybe just because they want it and it's there and society has utterly abandoned them. These days in America we think of property rights as on the same level as human rights, but they're not. Property rights are just a matter of convenience. Nobody gets hurt if you take some jewelry from a shop that's going to be flooded anyway. Maybe the owner will be out the money if and when he comes back, but that's thinking long term. Many of these people will not survive.

Now the rape, the assaults, the shooting at rescue workers...that's all wrong and completely inexcusable. That crosses the line from desperation to madness. But that's not the majority of the looters, and it's not like people are saying "Shoot the rapists and the killers, leave the guy who stole a leather jacket alone." They're lumping them all in together. They shouldn't.

If you want people to behave in a civilized manner you need to offer them civilization. We have not. We failed these people when they needed evacuation. We've failed to provide food and water for them, even though such supplies were immediately airdropped in Afghanistan when that was necessary. We're failing to get transportation down there and get them out. When we do get them out we're failing to treat them with dignity and care. We're stuffing them in old sports stadiums and letting them mill about with no hope for days. Where are the bus fleets. Where are the airdropped supplies? Where is the humanity?

These are poor black AMERICAN people. They deserve our sympathy and our assistance. These are not foreign refugees we can't identify with, these people are people you've known all your life. They're the guy behind the McDonald's counter with a Louisiana accent. They're the woman who sweeps up late at night at your office. They're the teens with the low-slung pants hanging on the street corner drinking from brown paper bags making rude comments at passerbys but generally not causing a ton of trouble.

They're looting because our society teaches us that wounds can be healed through consumerism and they have so many wounds and so many wants and nothing they can do about them right now. There is no better solution. There is no way out. There is no government in control of the situation willing and able to help. They were abandoned and they are now being left there with no way of knowing when they nightmare will end. In that situation are you sure you wouldn't break into Wal*Mart for a bottle of Tequila or a carton of smokes? Do you know you wouldn't try to get those shoes you always wanted but could never afford. Maybe. Maybe.

But wouldn't you be tempted?