Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Turn Has Been Made In Katrina's Wake

Now that New Orleans is submerged and the Mississippi Gulf Coast is in ruins, watch the conservative media's (including conservative blogger's) turn away from people and toward property. This is how some local conservative bloggers are starting to break: re-build New Orleans in order to get the flow of construction materials to help economic recovery vs. don't re-build New Orleans because it lies below sea level. Either way the focus is more on capital than on people. The focus here and here and here and here is on the mortal sin of looting, the highest crime against property, without reference people and how or why they loot.

A couple of years ago, I attended a conference at the University of Southern Mississippi, Gulf Coast (survived Katrina's storm surge) down in Long Beach. I shuttled back and forth down Hwy. 90 (now laying in chunks) from Gulfport and Long Beach, past Pass Christian and over St. Louis Bay to New Orleans and back again. The differences between New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast are stark: New Orleans is urban, mostly African American, largely working class to poor; the Gulf Coast seemed like a string of small towns with big houses, all white as far as I could tell, and wealthy.

I cannot help but wonder, as the discussion has turned to protecting property rather than people, whether the differences between New Orleans and the Gulf Coast drive some of the conservative turn to property. It apparently does in Steve Gill's case: apparently, he wants to send all federal aid to Biloxi and Gulfport rather than to New Orleans, but only after he's seen a couple of looters shot. In a diatribe reminiscent of old school southern lynch-mob mentality he seems to think that popping a cap in a couple of New Orleans residents would be enough to scare the rest. Obviously "continuing their celebration of virtue," Nathan and Sarah at MooreThoughts also call for gunning down New Orleans looters first and asking questions later, as does Blake Wylie at NashvilleFiles.

Perhaps once disaster conditions clear up suspected looters should be arrested and given a proper trial. But in no case should a crime against property ever be worthy of a death sentence, with or without a trial. My God, where have our priorities and "virtue" sunk if we are killing people to protect material goods or to send a message to other looters? The so-called "Culture of Life" seems to take a back seat when property and capital are behind the wheel.

We hear hurricane survivors say constantly that they are not upset about losing all of their material possessions because they can always get them back; they say that they are just thankful that their lives were spared. Yet, when it comes to property, some of us inlanders are apparently willing to start up a turkey shoot and summarily end somebody else's life over material possessions.

And I haven't even raised the question of whether some of those looters might be committing a crime in the name of staying alive in a submerged disaster area without electricity, gas, water, or telephone service. But Aunt B over at Tiny Cat Pants does that much better than I can:
It was like someone flipped a switch and now the story was going to be about looters, not about victims, when of course, those are the same people. People who lost everything in the hurricane and the flood in New Orleans are the ones looting. There aren't any outside bands of bad guys coming in to swarm down on Walmart and steal diapers and dry shoes and dry clothes and food. Those are people whose whole worlds are destroyed.
Why are we vilifying them?
[Snip]The people I saw on MSNBC and FoxNews looting were black. Partially ... this is because most of the poor people in New Orleans are black. Partially, as Atrios points out, it's because, according to the media (the AP in this case), black people "loot" and white people "find" [emphasis mine]
[Snip][F]raming it as if people who didn't leave deserved to die serves two purposes. One, it lets the rest of us continue that comfortable lie that we would have handled things differently, if something like that happened to us. In the face of unfathomable tragedy, it's sad human nature to take comfort in feeling a little smug superiority.
But, more importantly, two, it distracts us from questioning why, after the initial event no one could do anything about, is the water in New Orleans still rising? Why is there still chaos in the city? Why isn't there an enormous army of National Guard troops down there with helicopters and field kitchens and medics and the training to go into desolate urban areas and search for people?
So, even if looting is wrong, we still must distinguish those who loot to take advantage of a situation from those who loot just to stay alive or keep their family alive. That's part of what a system of justice does. However, those who focus on property rather than people don't make such distinctions.

08/31/2005, 11:55, Update: Add Bill Hobbs to the growing list of local conservative bloggers who are extolling the virtues of shooting suspected looters in order to send a message to other suspected looters. God knows we can't replace a pair of Nike shoes, so let's trade a human life for it, shall we?


  1. I feel confident that ANYONE in the aftermath of a Katrina-like situation would loot/find/forage for food and water and diapers and clean clothes if they intended to survive rather than give in to the situation.

    I don't have any sympathy for the jewelry/TV/electronic looters, but as S-Town Mike says, putting a higher value on property than humanity is misguided.

    In my blog, I call this thinking part of the hurricane porn that pervaded so much of the 'run-up' to Katrina.

  2. I haven't a clue as to what Blake's seeming administrative double-speak in his "Secondly" comment has anything to do with what I wrote about the conservative wish to fill suspected looters full of lead or with a defense of trading lives for property. I can only assume that he's saying that it's appropriate to kill off suspects in the name of protecting property without due process. I don't know what kind of moral code that comes from, but it sounds screwy to me.

    As for his "Heh" comment: I'm not going to presume to speak for Aunt B (whom I quoted) or Atrios (whom she quoted), but the idea that racial differences may drive the hair-triggered will-to-shoot largely black looters in New Orleans is not drawn into question because one news service used "loot" to describe what black people take and another news service used "find" to describe what white people take (since when have conservative bloggers cared about the fine nuances between the monolithic "liberal media," anyway?).

    Recognizing the different sources is a caveat that may qualify our conclusions about media bias about race. It does not change perceptions that it's easier to advocate going in and shooting black people in New Orleans, and do so calling them looters--without stopping to find out who is who and what is what--than it is say to advocate shooting some price gouging white gas station dealer in Jackson or Baton Rouge who takes advantage of this disaster by driving up his prices and taking other people's money. Looters are looters whether they break into a business or own the business. I don't advocate shooting either one. Blake advocates shooting only the former.

    My sense of democracy and civil rights is a little bit more inclusive than Blake's.