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Bread and circuses [Aug. 31st, 2005|10:30 am]
[Current Mood |scaredhorrified]

When I was in 5th grade and living in Portland, Oregon, we had a tremendous blizzard. Portland is one of those towns that shuts down for 2" of snow, and by the time this puppy was done we were sledding off the roof of the house. Then to make things even more fun, an inch of freezing rain fell atop the snow, creating a slick concretion that defied all attempts to shovel. Chisel was more like it.

The power went out early on in the storm, and stayed out for several days. This meant no heat, and my sisters were little toddlers, 1 and 2 years old. We piled into a single bed and pulled the blankets over our heads to stay warm. On the second day of no power, Dad ventured forth with a toboggan to try and get some firewood from the grocery store. Nothing was plowed yet, and the stores were all closed. The wood supply was getting low, so he piled up what he could and dragged it home.

We got power back on day 4, as I remember. We were among the lucky ones, because one of our neighbors was on dialysis (he had a dialysis machine in his house, a fact that boggles me now, but when you're 11 years old you don't know that this is unusual), so we were prioritized right after hospitals. Once the plows came through, Dad went back to the grocery store to apologize to the owner for taking the wood and to pay for what he'd taken. The owner waved him off. "By the time I got back here, not only was all the wood gone, people had taken the woodricks apart and hauled them off. But everyone came back to pay, and right now I've gotten so much money from it, I wouldn't feel right taking yours."

That's right; people not only overestimated what they owed, the owner refused to take advantage of the situation by pocketing the margin.

I think about that when I watch the looting in Katrina's aftermath and I really wonder if humanity has taken a turn for the worse.

Ferrett pointed out that in my situation people still had their houses and belongings, and knew it was only a matter of time until things got back to normal, whereas people in Louisiana and Alabama have lost everything and can justify their actions to themselves as getting back what was taken. And there is some truth to that.

But I remember the Rodney King riots. Race may have triggered them, but avarice quickly took over. What kind of mentality says, "hey those cops got off; I'm gonna get me a TV!" People from good neighborhoods were breaking into stores and stealing jewelry, clothing, electronics, then loading them into their BMWs and driving away.

I mean, what the fuck?

I can understand breaking into a grocery store - food's a necessity and the rising wter will probably ruin it anyway. I can even sort of understand breaking into WalMart - it's a faceless national chain with deep pockets. But people breaking into the small stores of local people and making off with the merchandise, that just boggles me. These are your neighbors. They've just lived through what you've lived through. How can you think of yourself as a decent human being and do such a thing?

A crisis like this brings out the hero in some of us, but the animal in others. I wonder what triggers the impulse, on either end of the spectrum, in one person but not another. Why do some of us struggle to hold onto our humanity while others shuck off the veneer of civility with less effort than taking off a shirt? Both impulses cross lines of race, creed, social position, wealth.

It can't just be a matter of, "Is that how your Momma raised you?!"

[User Picture]From: icefacade
2005-08-31 02:35 pm (UTC)
it's horrifying isn't it...
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[User Picture]From: theferrett
2005-08-31 02:40 pm (UTC)
Actually, to clarify, I said that in the case of New Orleans, a lot of it is simple survival, and it's not like those businesses are going to be able to sell that stuff any time soon. Fuck, I don't know why they want it, but if I was in New Orleans right now I'd be stealing supplies like mad. (Though not from the Children's Hospital.... Jesus.)

Whereas in the case of Rodney King, it's the "I deserve that" mentality, as in "Shit, society's oppressed my lazy ass for so long that it owes me a television. This isn't a robbery, it's payback!"

Which I totally don't understand. But then again, humanity's a funny thing.
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[User Picture]From: theferrett
2005-08-31 02:41 pm (UTC)
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From: heyoka_hoka_hey
2005-08-31 02:40 pm (UTC)

Don't know myself....

Each time I drive into DC, I can still see signs of the MLK riots - right after King was assassinated, riots broke out, and the rioters looted - not big stores with guards, but stores in their own neighborhoods! All this marring the legacy of a man dedicated to peace. *sigh*

Anywho... it might have something to do with faith (not religion), and if you know whose you are. In the end we are all owned by something/someone. Though few would say the Devil, there are many owned by money, pride, hate (of all different types by all different types), jealousy, lust, their job, their position, their dreams (good or bad) and their posessions, or desire for them.... and some owned by the best that they see, the good that can be done, and an obligation to see it done, be it little or much. Some are owned by Jesus, bought and paid for in His Blood.

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[User Picture]From: radistotle
2005-08-31 02:47 pm (UTC)
I think it's simple greed and the mentality that our society has that you should take anything that you can - whether or not you need it, can afford it, can even use it.

My husband and I were talking about the looting today and like you said, can understand people getting food and bottled water... but stealing a toaster? or a TV? Jewelry? come on! However, we both admitted that of all the people that we know, we could only think of a handful (including ourselves) that wouldn't take anything that wasn't necessary for survival.

The consumer culture encourages people to accumulate as much as they can and hey, if it's free - you can really get a lot of stuff. Ridiculous.

I hope that the stolen electronics really give them comfort when they have dysentary and are being attacked by alligators.

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[User Picture]From: moominmuppet
2005-08-31 02:50 pm (UTC)
I liked bradhicks' take on it, and his differentiation between looting and salvage. http://www.livejournal.com/users/bradhicks/170904.html
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2005-08-31 02:52 pm (UTC)
I have no problem with taking food, formula, diapers. But there is a quantum difference between that and rolling a big screen TV out of the store. Particularly when it started before the levees broke.

Of course, the looters who took large items will probably lose them all to the rising floodwaters anyway.
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[User Picture]From: ladyoflight2004
2005-08-31 02:56 pm (UTC)
I think that at times like these, the uppermost morality of a person (or lack of it) will surface. It doesn't matter how somebody was brought up, if a character with limited morals sees the main chance and takes it, regardless of who suffers, that's a moral issue. Not everybody has morals.

The society we live in today is all the poorer for lacking moral fibre and it stretches all the way to the top. I shudder to see some of the things that happen on TV, and it becomes highlighted within so-called reality TV programs. Programmers seem to want to find the very worst in the people they choose to take part, and the ones they find become famous for being immoral and that seems to become an acceptable condition of society thereafter, especially amongst the young and impressionable and the not too bright. Unfortunately, it has permeated society to a degree where that society is now thoroughly sick.

I suppose we get what we deserve. If we tolerate this garbage and accept the so-called 'moral values' displayed, we only have ourselves to blame. The voice against these programs seems to be dull or silent. And the newspapers and other TV pundits who applaud the behaviour within the shows are just colluding with the decline in attitude to lack of morality.
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[User Picture]From: ladyoflight2004
2005-08-31 03:07 pm (UTC)
I just wanted to add that I am not some religious freak - I'm not even a Christian. But I do have a moral code. And I totally agree with zoethe that taking for need rather than greed are completely different.
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From: ladytabitha
2005-08-31 03:08 pm (UTC)
I think about that when I watch the looting in Katrina's aftermath and I really wonder if humanity has taken a turn for the worse.

Partly, people are human, and will have mixes of decent and indecent.  So I kind of expected this to happen.

Partly the stuff isn't just straight looting, such as during the Rodney King stuff - with that, it was decidedly stealing, because the businesses and people running them would, yknow, be able to go back to them the next day.  Or the next week.  Definitely sometime earlier than it'll take to drain New Orleans and make it function again.  So I look at it more as salvaging than as straight looting.

(While I'm thinking about it, the question "Do you treat the man who stole bread for his family differently than the man who stole bread for profit?" definitely comes into play here - is it any less illegal for a family to steal diapers than for a man to steal a television set?  (Incomprehensibility is a different question.))

Partly... honestly?  If I were dead-ass poor and still in the city because I could not possibly afford to leave the place?  You damn straight I'd be looting, so that I could have any means for rebuilding my life.  Especially if the stores had been abandoned (not just shut down for the night, but incapable of functioning for a long, long, long time).

However, I entirely agree on the television set part, since that's not easily transportable.

My .016 Euros.
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[User Picture]From: kmg_365
2005-08-31 04:11 pm (UTC)
However, I entirely agree on the television set part, since that's not easily transportable.

And where are ya going to plug it in? ;-)

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[User Picture]From: mentalwasteland
2005-08-31 03:18 pm (UTC)
Some thoughts on this.

On another website, I saw links to two different shots of people carrying food taken from a store. The first, a picture of a young black man, had a caption with the word "looting". The second, of a young white couple, said "finding bread and soda..." I am wondering how long it will be before the pundits spin this into a racial issue, with a sub-context or even blatant context of "these people got what they deserved, because they stayed behind to loot," which ignores the fact that the vast majority of people who stayed behind simply lacked the means to leave.

While I was typing the above, I got a call from my insurance broker to talk about flood insurance. My townhome is in a very good flood zone, but it still between Houston and Galveston. It's been on my "to do" list since I bought this place this spring to get flood insurance. I'm now out $206 and covered for the next year.

I worked a LOT of overtime in the past two weeks. For once it was paid, because of some weird vagaries and budgeting by NASA. No time and a half, but it's going to add about 50% on top of my normal pay. My original plan had been to use it to buy a desperately needed new mattress. Now, after paying for the flood insurance, I've decided to send it to Red Cross. I sent some money to them after the tsunamis, and this is for my next door neighbors.

And now I'm wondering when and if I can help out more physically. Maybe I should call some local churches.
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From: oneil1973
2005-08-31 03:25 pm (UTC)

my thoughts

I think that when you have no hope of a tomorrow, you will do what it takes to get through today.

Just for argument and perspective. If people were watching that market with the wood at the time that everyone was helping themselves to wood, would that not be seen as looting? Nobody could know that your father and the others were going to go back and pay for it later.

I don't think the Rodney King riots are related in any way to what's happening in the south right now. That was anger-based, this is survival-based.

Insurance will pay for the missing merchandise here and, after all, the insurance companies are always screwing us anyway, right. Just Kidding. Those small stores are going to be so far beyond getting back to business anytime soon, that a few hundred dollars worth of stuff isn't going to hurt them, but it might save the life of the family who took it.

These people have also been out of their homes for days now. They may want the basics like deoderant, toothpaste, and a change of underwear. Wouldn't you go to Wal-Mart? One-stop looting. :)

I still don't believe that I could break into a place and steal stuff unless I thought I had no options left, but I can see where that train of thought comes from and where it goes.

I once didn't eat for two days because I had no money and couldn't bring myself to ask for any.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2005-08-31 03:31 pm (UTC)

Re: my thoughts

I agree about the basics, about survival supplies. It's the TVs and bikes and jewelry (particularly before the levees broke when it appeared that the town was out of danger). I don't think it's looting to get food. Or firewood - even if you aren't going to be able to pay for it.

A Rolex is not a life necessity, however.
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[User Picture]From: xforge
2005-08-31 03:34 pm (UTC)
I've commented on that before, I'm utterly perplexed myself; "Those cops were acquitted so I"m gonna go tear down that corner store!!"

Two days later: "Dang, we need some milk, I guess I better run down to the corner store. Oh wait, that's right, I tore that store down, burned it and shot the clerk - darn the luck."


"Humanity has taken a turn for the worse;" that is exactly what Jerry Casale thought when he saw two of his closest friends gunned down by police at a peaceful antiwar protest at Kent State University. And thus was born Devo. But being an Ohioan you probably knew that.

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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2005-08-31 03:40 pm (UTC)
Not a native Ohioan, but I did know that.
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[User Picture]From: miripanda
2005-08-31 03:35 pm (UTC)
I was pondering that yesterday, actually, as I looked at pictures of people wading through waist-deep water to get to some corner store. The caption called them looters, but the Polly-Anda in me wants to think they're just taking food that they'll go back and pay for once order is restored. I can definately see needing supplies while the stores and city are in total bedlam (um, some 'parishes' have declared martial law, according to the governor??), and I think (my mom works for FEMA, which will be dealing with all this two years down the road) that most stores will get some government aid to help re-establish themselves. So I can't bring myself to call them looters. The dumb-heads stealing TVs when there's no power for 20 miles, sure. But the grocery-shoppers-with-no-cashiers-nor-money? Harder to blame.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2005-08-31 03:43 pm (UTC)
To quote myself: I can understand breaking into a grocery store - food's a necessity and the rising wter will probably ruin it anyway.

I agree that getting food, diapers, formula, even toothpaste and soap, is justifiable.
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[User Picture]From: old_hedwig
2005-08-31 03:45 pm (UTC)
Taking what you need for survival and reasonable comfort - food, bottled water, diapers, a dry blanket- is morally acceptable if not strictly legal. Taking items for resale or to otherwise profit is just wrong. Also, looting very easily gets out of control and turns into wholesale riot and mob rule. The police need to be strict with it because it naturally escalates.
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[User Picture]From: old_hedwig
2005-08-31 03:47 pm (UTC)
Ideally, the police/National Guard would appropriate the contents of a store and distribute items in an organized fashion.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-08-31 04:03 pm (UTC)
Maybe its an occupational hazard - but I'm finding it interesting that people interchange "what is legal" with "what is moral" - and shuddering that they are in any way synonymous. Yes, is it just as "illegal" to steal bread as it is to steal large screen tvs, but (IMHO) the former is not "immoral" while the later one certainly is.

Why is it okay to help yourself to something on the grounds that "it will only get ruined anyway"? It's not yours. Hell, if that were an acceptable justification, I could waltz into my neighbors house in NJ and root through their closets - "You're not gonna wear this, are you? Okay, well, I'll just take it then..."

It's the ugly underbelly of our much vaunted consumerism - train people to covet "things" and convince them that the accumulation of "things" is important - shows your status and your value as a person. Honey, a 27 inch TV is a really shitty trade for your morality, and whoever told you it was worth it sold you a cheap bill of goods. But a lot of people have either forgotten or never learned that just because you don't get shot or put in jail for doing something doesn't make it "right" to do. (and unfortunately, this is what the religious right uses as fuel for their arguments that we have to legislate morality in this country - or else there will be no morality. But that's for another time.) Did you really think that just because 40 people around you are stuffing their pockets with cheap Walmart crap it must be "okay" for you to do it to? Hell no you didn't. You knew you were stealing, you just want to feel better about yourself.

I don't care if all your "things" that you had accumulated are gone, that doesn't give you a reason to take someone else's "things" to make up for it. In my experience the karma police are much worse to deal with than the New Orleans PD, but I guess if that's the only moral authority you have, then you'll be right up there grabbing your TV and getting yours. *sigh* Welcome to America in 2005.

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[User Picture]From: girliewhirl
2005-08-31 04:09 pm (UTC)
Oopps, sorry... that was me. Didn't realize that I wasn't logged in. Guess I should check before climbing on the soap=box, eh?

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[User Picture]From: kmg_365
2005-08-31 04:16 pm (UTC)
It can't just be a matter of, "Is that how your Momma raised you?!"

Especially if your Momma is helping you smash in the store front window ;)

I think mob mentality really comes in to play here. You know, an "everyone else is doing it" sort of thing that drives people to behave in manners they otherwise would not.

Sort of like why people would overturn cars and set fire to anything combustible because their basketball team won a championship. John Q Sixpack probably wouldn't normally do that, but gets swept up in the moment and acts like a complete ass.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2005-08-31 04:19 pm (UTC)
A mentality I also don't understand. Do these people have no empathy? Can't they think how they'd feel if it was their car?
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[User Picture]From: kmg_365
2005-08-31 04:30 pm (UTC)
From a news blurb a co-worker sent me. I wondered how long it would be before one of the looters killed someone:

On New Orleans' Canal Street, dozens of looters ripped open the steel gates on clothing and jewelry stores and grabbed merchandise. The looting prompted authorities to send more than 70 additional officers and an armed personnel carrier into the city. One police officer was shot in the head by a looter but was expected to recover, authorities said. Blanco said she will ask President Bush for military troops to help keep looting under control.

A giant new Wal-Mart in New Orleans was looted, and the entire gun collection was taken, The Times-Picayune reported. "There are gangs of armed men in the city moving around the city," said Ebbert, the city's homeland security chief. Also, looters tried to break into Children's Hospital, the governor's office said.

'It Was Complete Chaos'

In Biloxi, Miss., people picked through casino slot machines for coins and ransacked other businesses. In some cases, the looting was in full view of police and National Guardsmen.
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[User Picture]From: bustylis
2005-08-31 06:11 pm (UTC)
A giant new Wal-Mart in New Orleans was looted, and the entire gun collection was taken, The Times-Picayune reported.

Ah, yes. This why we need big-box stores selling large quantities of guns. Not that looters aren't capable of making weapons out of anything if given the chance, but a gun is a damn efficient way of killing someone. Glad large quantities are available and unguarded.
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From: ladytabitha
2005-08-31 04:37 pm (UTC)
Another thing - when you say that "I really wonder if humanity has taken a turn for the worse", what are you comparing it to?

Are you comparing it to the 50's, when we still had segregation?  Or the 60's, with the Vietnam War, and all the fun-joy-happy there?  Or any number of other decades within the 20th/21st centuries, wherein which huge nasty wretched things were being done by human beings?

The only way that that sentiment makes sense is in an extremely short-term view sense.  Much the same as "All current music is crap!  It was sooo much better [n] years ago!" - it all seems like crap because you're in the middle of it, without the perspective of time to whitewash the worse aspects.
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From: blumindy
2005-08-31 05:37 pm (UTC)
American culture (business leaders and government leaders) gave up on the Social Contract that would have enforced notions like "how would I feel if this were my car" or the attitude that the shops are owned by our neighbors and therefore we know them or feel a bond.

Consumerism and the new American bully-ism (of the Neo-Con type) have done as much as possible to alienate every person from everyone else. It started with TV showing Americans that everyone in America was not exactly the same. Pols and business people exploited that to the max. The current administration is a product of fomenting as much "us-against-them" fear and hatred as possible. Anti-gay?....they aren't like you! Brown skin? Speak a different language...not Christian? They aren't like (and that means NOT as good/moral)YOU! and on and on with emphasizing the differences AND then de-valuing or vilifying them.

All that leads to a "Me, first!" and "I want it, I deserve it mentality. Sure, lots of us don't feel that way and give to whomever whenever we see need or devastation (like the tsunami donations, etc.) But the change in society comes from politicians being able to make hay from divisiveness and the modern over-emphasis on consumerism.

I actually have hope from all of this because I believe that a big enough disaster will turn Americans away from all of these created divisions and back toward valuing the Social Contract. Not sure that I will live to see it but I do think that those who don't learn make life harder and harder for themselves until the light dawns. Or we go the way of the dinos....
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[User Picture]From: violacat
2005-09-02 02:49 am (UTC)
I actually have hope from all of this because I believe that a big enough disaster will turn Americans away from all of these created divisions and back toward valuing the Social Contract.

I seem to recall that immediately following 9/11, many people expected just this to happen. And for a little while, it did, but then...

I have never understood why people can be so rude to other people they don't even know, for no clear reason. A few years ago, an employee at a deli I frequented thanked me for being polite and always saying please and thank you. I was stunned, because I hardly considered my everyday behavior to be something out of the ordinary, but apparently, it was.

But I think it's exactly what you were saying about the "Me, first!" mentality and the divisiveness. It's the idea of "Oh, the person on the other side of the counter isn't like me; he or she is a mere peon, so I can be rude to him/her." I feel like I get considerably more respect at my teaching job than at my coffee shop job, because one takes a highly specialized set of skills and a certain education, and the other doesn't...but I'm the same person.

And I'm babbling all over zoethe's journal, so I'll shut up now.
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[User Picture]From: elf_inside
2005-08-31 07:09 pm (UTC)
You gotta remember that this is NEW ORLEANS we're talking about. It's hardly the shining example of humanity. It's the asshole of America. (think about all the shit that goes down the Mississippi, heh)... I've been there twice, and both times it shocked me with the utter scum that populates the city....

They didn't deserve to lose everything they had anymore than the next city... but I think that the community spirit that so many cities can depend on in a situation such as this just doesn't extend as far in the Big Easy.
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[User Picture]From: dawntreader90
2005-09-01 04:08 pm (UTC)
even worse, what kind of person says, "hey! my favourite sport team just won! let's riot in celebration, vandalize our own hometown, and get ourselves a new TV!"
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[User Picture]From: spooke
2005-09-02 10:22 pm (UTC)
Sadly, I think it is a case of how their mommas raised them. Restricting childrens' behavior fell out of vogue in many circles 20-30 years ago, and the idea has since spread - and with those children having grown up with no curbs to their bad behavior, have raised another generation with even less 'direct parenting.' Now everything is everyone else's fault/problem, including how your kids act. It hasn't done those kids any favors.
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[User Picture]From: zoethe
2005-09-02 11:16 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think there is some truth to that.
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