New Orleans - Human Nature?
"We have individuals who are getting raped, we have individuals who are getting beaten."
So said the New Orleans police chief, Eddie Compass, yesterday, as he described conditions on the streets of his devastated city.
As if his statement was not bewildering enough, helicopter missions to evacuate patients from some of the city's hospitals had to be suspended - because they came under fire. National guardsmen are being brought in to help restore order. In armoured vehicles. The words "You loot ... I shoot", sprayed-painted outside a New Orleans shop, have become one of the iconic images of the disaster.
All of which begs a question: why did this particular natural disaster tear up the basic tenets of human decency in the same way it tore up infrastructure along the US Gulf coast?
It would be fair to say that a bit of looting is par for the course following an event such as Hurricane Katrina. It happened in Aceh after last year's tsunami, and it happened after the 2003 earthquake in Bam. But rapes? And shootings? Targeting the emergency services?
Not even in Aceh, where guns are prevalent among rebel groups and people brutalised by conflict, did such things take place. But I can think of one precedent. In 1999, I covered an earthquake that laid to waste a large part of the small Colombian city of Armenia. As emergency services searched for survivors, the army patrolled the streets, firing regular volleys of tear gas to keep whole crowds of looters at bay. Shopkeepers maintaining a 24-hour presence outside their premises, armed with guns and machetes, provided a second ring of security. Needless to say, there were casualties.
So what do Armenia in 1999 and New Orleans in 2005 have in common? Poverty and desperation, certainly - but that also applies to the areas hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami. In Colombia, though, people who live outside the three major cities often complain of exclusion in the extreme, of "feeling that the state has never touched their lives", leading them to take matters quickly into their own hands. As in the US, the cult of the individual is worshipped and any sense of social responsibility is weak.
Indeed, the cult of the individual extends to the right to bear arms. Colombians bear arms because they are available and they get away with it, while the US constitution effectively invites its citizens to do so.
The end result is the same - large numbers of private individuals packin' a piece despite their being untrained, largely unvetted and often unfit to own a firearm. In Louisiana, it seems it may be payback time for the Second Amendment.