Looters Will Be Killed

Tom Smith challenges our common perception of the human reaction to natural disasters.

Imagine a disaster unfolding. A serious earthquake centred on a city in a “developing” country, for example. Few, if any, of us will ever have direct experience of such an event but I’m sure we can visualise what we think would be its implications. Even before the aftershocks hit, all shoddily-constructed buildings have collapsed. The dead or dying lie trapped under rubble. Survivors are left with nothing, waiting for help, in a sparse metropolis of rubble. Looting starts almost instantly, with no respect for private property, getting worse as people hungrily start to scavenge. Not just food and basic supplies are taken but TVs and other consumer goods are seen disappearing from shop fronts.

Fights break out over scarce supplies. As aid begins to trickle in, the army are forced to keep order, even having to open fire to stop looting of the newly-available aid supplies. A common scenario, one might assume. The truth is that the lens through which we imagine the world is constructed from an elaborate web of stories and myths, a cultural windowpane whose existence shouldn’t be controversial. In essence, however, all these narratives are based on assumptions and prejudgements, some more grounded in reality than others.

One image commonly portrayed in the media (be it Hollywood, newspapers, or television), is the natural human disposition to chaos, panic and uncontrollable violence in the aftermath of serious disasters. Haiti, New Orleans, Pakistan, Chile: the media focus often becomes the same. Valuable publicity is overtaken by scare stories of human avarice and brutality (often racially motivated, as in the case of New Orleans). As global disasters, with blurred natural/manmade lines, are predicted to become more common across the world for a plethora of reasons, confronting this miserable picture of human nature will take on even more relevance. Change must begin with scepticism from the audience; from the person viewing or reading about such claims.

The truth is, for example, that crime rates often decline in the wake of a disaster. The best accounts from the ground indicate that communities nearly always cooperate innovatively to share meagre resources, with increased altruism and a disregard for socially-constructed conceptions of property. The better-off, no matter how destitute, often help the worse-off. Waiting powerlessly for help from external agencies, as seen in our imagined scenario, is another common fallacy which we often accept unthinkingly.

Take author Rebecca Solnit’s example of Manhattan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 as an inspiring example of human cooperative possibility. We know plenty about the rescuers in the towers but we hear considerably less about the flotilla, ranging from yachts to historic rescue boats, which spontaneously organised and evacuated 300,000 to 500,000 people in a matter of hours, as bridges, tunnels and subways were closed off. For comparative purposes, the Dunkirk evacuation rescued roughly the same amount but over a period of nine days.

Moving the image of ordinary people caught up in disaster from one of passive “victims” to a resource for heightened resilience is an activity already underway around the world. The CORE programme in Oakland, California, for example, has trained almost 20,000 citizens in disaster preparedness, with skills including search and rescue, preparation of neighbourhood responses, first aid and much more. The impact of this on human lives is potentially huge, complementing existing emergency services. With our own recent experience of floods, freezes and water shortages in UCC and the wider Cork area, enhancing this bottom-up resilience could be the way to go. Either way, think twice about what you’re told next time the world’s media focus inevitably flits to a new disaster zone.

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