The horror, devastation and misery of Hurricane Katrina cannot be escaped. My wife and I sit riveted in front of the television screen watching astounding images as an incredible, beautiful and very special American city, a place we had grown to love, full of people we know and care for as friends, is literally erased from existence.
But as the full scope of the devastation in the Delta begins to dawn on us, there is a mounting number of jarring, completely discordant comments being sounded by righteous television talking heads that I find irrelevant and distracting.
It may have started on Fox News but within hours it became a thread picked up by CNN, NBC and the rest. It is the voice of outrage expressed at the sight of people jumping out of store windows with bags filled with goods taken from shelves within.
By the fourth day the theme was well-established.
"Why don't the police shoot them?"
"Look, they're laughing as they run away. How horrible it makes us look."
"Anarchy reigns! Send in the troops."
And a part of me is also offended by the sight of gutted stores, burnt-out ATM machines, cardboard boxes filled with liquor bottles being trotted down the street. It is a very unsettling sight, reminiscent of the footage from riots in Watts or Detroit in the '60s. It is a thumb in the eye of civil society; a middle finger thrust straight up in the air defiantly in front of public order's face, a reminder that the veneer of civilization can be peeled back amazingly easily.
Anger at the looters is understandable. I can feel it myself. "They're giving all the victims a bad name," I want to shout. "They ought to be much better behaved; just wait patiently for help; respect private property. Help is on the way."
But of course help is not on the way. By day five, the "help" sent turns out to be troops who show up too late to help what will likely be thousands who have died while waiting on the sidewalks, medians and overpasses of a steaming tropical city.
And of course much of the "looting" was nothing more than an attempt at finding the basics of life. It is a situation in which every single one of us would have found justification for seizing whatever water, food or clothing we needed just to survive. These are people being filmed on television who started with little and now have lost everything. By definition, if they'd had much they would have gotten out the week before when everyone with a way out got out.
So they are scrounging, hunting, grabbing. They are not going to pay for the diapers, the shirts, the cigarettes or the beer they are taking off the shelves, that's true enough. But as scummy floodwaters swirl around and over them, as they search for water to drink that won't kill them, as they search for a dry spot to catch a few minutes of sleep out of the sun, does their "crime" really matter enough to draw the angry criticism that commentator after commentator blasts away with?
I mean, what is looting, exactly? If grabbing $100 worth of goods out of a boarded-up store earns you national press stricture, what should profiteering on the price of gasoline earn you? That's looting, too, isn't it?
And if you are in charge of public policy and vote to cut millions from the appropriation that would have added the crucial few feet to the protective levees on the river that experts have been warning was necessary—well, isn't that looting, too? Especially if the money trimmed there got shifted away from flood protection to finance a far less critical pet project somewhere else?
So excuse me if I save a little of my righteous indignation over "looting" for some of the wholesale looters enriching themselves in our fair nation instead of expending it all on the penny-ante smash-and-grab looting taking place on television in the wrecked streets of New Orleans.
However, there is something else that is really very scary going on there. A random, mindless violence that seems to be stripping away all vestiges of orderliness is growing. New Orleans, like every large American metropolis (our own included), has a large population of drug addicts. When heroin, crack cocaine and methamphetamine supplies are disrupted suddenly and totally, a whole lot of junkies are going to have to go cold turkey at the same time. It's no surprise that they are running amok.
I think that's what is probably fueling the craziest of the violence in New Orleans. It wouldn't be much better here if a similar catastrophe were to befall us.
The Big Easy was never a terribly prosperous place. Hundreds of thousands of the poorest people in the country are now completely destitute. There won't be jobs, housing or opportunities for years to come. Without concrete, steel or plywood and with gasoline prices soaring well above $3 a gallon, the task of reconstruction seems daunting.
Katrina's damage makes 9/11 look mild by comparison and it will be a major challenge for us as a society to rebuild the area with justice. How we face that task will define us as a people in history. Are we caring or are we just another variety of looter?