When the history of our disgraceful preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina is written, logistical failures—evacuation, flood planning, aid delivery, communication—will be only half the story. The other half will be our government’s incomprehension of the human part of the disaster. I’m not talking about the victims. I’m talking about the perpetrators, most of them ordinary people. The crime in New Orleans was not isolated. The lawlessness should not have been surprising. Disasters do not tend to bring out the best in people. And if you want to stop them from bringing out the worst, preaching is a lot less effective than weapons and aid.
What’s striking about most of the crime is how ordinary the perpetrators and their motives are. They steal food and clothing. They say it’s for their kids or neighbors. They argue—and some store managers agree—that that the flood would have ruined the goods anyway. Interviewed by reporters, they come off as decent citizens. Some are uniformed officers. You can imagine yourself, in dire circumstances, doing the same thing.