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Humanity at its best and worst

Former FBI profiler on looting in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

The first Battle of New Orleans took place in 1815. Now 190 years later another battle has overtaken "The Big Easy." On Monday Hurricane Katrina struck the city at 145 mph. While upwards of a million people fled the city to avoid the predicted 30-foot storm surge, others hunkered down to ride out what will prove to be America's most destructive natural disaster. Some insurance experts expect over $26 billion in claims across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. When daylight broke on Tuesday, the true level of destruction came into focus with 80 percent of New Orleans under water. Posttraumatic stress reaction was common, and tens of thousands now fight the elements and the aftermath of the hurricane to survive. While most residents responded in the very best way possible, some chose the low road of human behavior. An unknown number of residents along the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans turned to looting, not only stripping the shelves of stores for food and water and other survival supplies, but taking clothing, jewelry, cars, radios, liquor, drugs, furniture, guns, and just about anything else that wasn't nailed down.

Hurricane Hugo
When Hurricane Hugo struck St. Croix in September 1989, every leaf of every tree was blown out to sea. Most homes and businesses were damaged, and, in many cases, destroyed. The entire island was plunged into anarchy. The fine line that separates other-oriented compassion from self-centered, "I'm going to get mine" response blurred at best and was in some cases lost. Understandably, some people were simply searching for food and water, like some in New Orleans today. But others, the "have nots" saw the natural disaster as a "key to the city," especially a key to the stores, businesses, and homes of the "haves" in the towns of Christiansted and Frederiksted and outlying areas. Most stores and many local homes were looted the first day.

In a unique response to that disaster the FBI and the U.S. Military deployed in force to provide aid and assistance, and to restore law and order to the then-lawless island. It was as bands of looters moved up-land toward the homes of those who lived better than themselves that I joined the effort. With a few dozen FBI Agents and a few hundred U.S. Army MPs, we inserted ourselves between the "haves" and the "have nots." Eventually, we were able to stop the storm-charged chaos in its tracks before even greater property loss and personal injury took place. I thought that I had seen hurricane damage as bad as it could be, but Katrina is far worse.

Government Response
In the riots that followed the 1968 Democratic National Convention, then-Chicago Mayor Daley told police to shoot to wound looters and shoot to kill arsonists. On Tuesday Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour compared looters to grave robbers, but the looting continued anyway.  In some areas the AP reported that looters were floating plastic trash cans filled with stolen property down flooded streets, a kind of water born shopping cart for thieves. While some looters explained away their behavior as a survival reaction in support of their families, others saw the tragedy of their fellow citizens as their opportunity to get back from society what they believed themselves to be owed. There was, however, some kind of order among thieves as some looters waited in a loose line to get into stores to loot, while others just grabbed what they could and walked or waded away. Many exchanged small talk with other looters as if a national "free to loot day" had been declared.

Where are the police? In a crisis of this magnitude, police, fire, and rescue personnel are torn between the needs of their own families and the needs of their communities, with a selfless concern for their fellow man being the extraordinary collective response from the vast majority of such personnel. With hundreds or more dead and thousands stranded on roof tops and in need of rescue, the preservation of civil order has had to take a back seat to the preservation of life. Law enforcement relies on people to respond in a civilized manner. When they don't, the community suffers. Where do you begin, when everywhere is ground zero and everyone needs help?

Were They Prepared for the Worst?
Although FEMA and the affected states did their best to pre-stage life-saving assets in such an emergency, did they fully consider how law enforcement and others asked to maintain civil order could be deployed? We all know that when Baghdad fell it was looted by its citizens while, as some suggest, the U.S. military just looked on, or away. Many treasures from Iraq's past were carried off and colleges, schools, and businesses, as well as Saddam's palaces, were looted. Some historians have suggested that perhaps seven thousand years of Iraq's history may never be recovered. One archeologist compared the looting of the historic treasures of Iraq to the museums in America losing half their collections. Said the archeologist, "The Iraqi's looted because law and order broke down." This is the case in many areas that were overrun by Hurricane Katrina.

Multiple levels of looting are ongoing in New Orleans and in other affected areas. The police know that the conditions are miserable at best and that even tempers are in short supply. Alarmingly, water is in even shorter supply. As darkness befalls the city each night the lack of lighting, housing, and the presence of roaming gangs of looters make the threat to residents even greater, if such is possible. One emergency management official suggested that power will be off in the area for months. This means the threat to life and limb will grow each night. The level of conflict that could take place between looters and law enforcement has yet to be determined. The equivalent of marshal law has been declared in many areas, but can law enforcement and the military enforce it? Not without an overwhelming show of force that may take many more days to muster.

Don't We Know Better?
As the Coast Guard, local and state law enforcement, and ordinary citizens are rising to the call to save the lives of stranded and endangered community members, other law enforcement and military personnel take to the street to draw the thin blue line between crime and, in this case, survival. The dark side of humanity always appears in such tragedies, many times showing its worst side in crimes against those who have already lost so much. And, mass looting won't be the only problem the victims of Hurricane Katrina could face. Incidents of domestic violence and other crimes against people may increase as well. The real story will be the many acts of human kindness that will take place across the area. In the midst of this disaster, though, we can only wonder, how can people be so cruel, why do they loot?

Looting as a Measure of Society
Eighty percent of the people who drowned when the Titanic sunk were men, yet another maritime example of "Women and Children First!" In 1992 one northeastern U.S. newspaper asked its readers if they would give up their seat on a lifeboat in a situation similar to that of the Titanic. Thirty-five percent of the men said they'd sacrifice themselves for an unrelated woman or child while two-thirds said they would give up their seat to their wife. Although only one major city, such results suggest how many of us have become increasingly self-centered in many aspects of our lives. Looting is both opportunistic and infectious, with many believing that "if they don't get theirs," others will simply take their share. In 'A Study of History' historian Arnold J. Toynbee tells us that most civilizations collapse not by invasion from aggressors, but by dissolution from within, what some refer to as a kind of cultural suicide. As the days and weeks go by, I hope that the many incidents of self sacrifice that are related to this disaster far outweigh those of selective looting, and that more of us are able to consider who we would really give our life boat seat to and why.

We Will Meet this Test
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina we will become aware of the hundreds of heroes for every one looter. What we can't do is lose our focus on the true spirit of America as rescuers and ordinary citizens continue to step up to meet the needs of their community, willing to sacrifice their all for people they don't even know. That's humanity and society at its best.

A 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps
In 1933, then President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to employ the nearly 3 million unemployed Americans that needed both work and an income.  At that time our country had the available manpower to complete many worthwhile national projects.  In just 37 days President Roosevelt was able to make the idea of a CCC a reality.  He did this by mobilizing a civilian peacetime army to address our nation's needs at the time of the Great Depression.  This may well be the time for President Bush to consider the modern day version of the CCC, in this case a partnership between the Federal Government and the affected states.  He could accomplish this by employing the many tens of thousands of displaced and unemployed victims of Hurricane Katrina to help rebuilt their own homes and communities, while at the same time providing them a purpose and a mission in life.  If people are fed, housed, clothed and provided the opportunity to build their own future, they become both an emotional and a physical partner in such a venture.  The need to deal with issues of civil disorder could well just disappear in the efforts of a people allowed to shape their own destiny.  It could just be worth the try.

Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed , a Website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and was the leader of the analytical team tasked with identifying the "Unabomber."