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?