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JEFF JACOBY

The looting instinct

HURRICANE KATRINA was horrific in its devastation, but the orgy of looting and lawlessness that exploded across New Orleans in its wake was, in a way, even more sinister. A natural disaster can inflict massive physical damage on a community. But when human beings become savages, they shred the ligaments of civilization -- fairness, trust, respect, consideration -- that make life as a community possible.

The viciousness began almost before the storm had passed. A Wal-Mart was one of the first stores broken into; its inventory of guns promptly disappeared. Crowds of thieves ransacked clothing stores, jewelry stores, liquor stores. In full view of television crews and news photographers -- and in some cases, even police or National Guardsmen -- looters hauled cases of stolen beer through hip-deep water, filled trash barrels with clothes, shoes, and jewelry, and crammed car trunks with computers and DVD players. In a video clip shown on NBC, security guards joined looters in stripping one shop bare. Police officers looted, too.

To break into a drugstore protected by a steel barrier, reported The New York Times, ''someone had stolen a forklift, driven it four blocks, peeled up the security gate, and smashed through the front door." Thieves entered the parking garage of a New Orleans hospital and stripped cars of their batteries and stereos. Carjackers stole a vehicle from a nursing home bus driver. Looters ransacked a police truck filled with food.

But the breakdown of civil society didn't stop with attacks on property. Soon the predators were attacking people.

On Thursday, New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass described the savagery inside the convention center, where 15,000 people had taken shelter: ''We have individuals who are getting raped; we have individuals who are getting beaten." He sent 88 police officers to restore order; they were beaten back by a mob. Police snipers took up positions on precinct roofs, on guard against the armed gangs who were roaming the city. Not all the corpses turning up in New Orleans were of drowning victims. Some had been shot to death. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was trying to operate, director Michael Brown said, ''under conditions of urban warfare."

Those who called early on for shooting looters on sight should have been listened to -- not because property is more valuable than human life, but because when property isn't safe from marauders, human life isn't, either. When thugs find out they can get away with looting, they're apt to conclude they can get away with anything.

As always, there were those whose first instinct was to make excuses for the inexcusable.

''Had New York been closed off on 9/11, who can say what they would have done?" said Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, vice president of the New Orleans City Council. ''When there's no food, no water, no sanitation, who can say what you'd do? People were trying to protect their children." By smashing jewelry counters and stealing cases of beer? By committing rape?

As New Orleans sank into anarchy, The Washington Post reminded its readers to steer clear of moral judgments. ''What we think of as looting," Linton Weeks wrote on the front page of the Post's Style section, ''may be more complicated than it seems." And vandals making off with DVDs or flat-screen TVs is ''complicated" because -- why, exactly? Weeks didn't explain. He did, however, quote others who were ''trying to understand the nuances of looting." Professor Benigno Aguirre of the University of Delaware: ''It may look from the outside as if they are stealing or breaking the law, when in fact some of them are trying to survive."

But most of us have no trouble distinguishing between desperate people in need of food and water and brazen criminals descending to the level of primitives. Just as most of us understand that morality and virtue are never more essential than when disaster strikes.

If too many people behaved shamefully last week, countless others responded to Katrina's horror with goodness and courage -- from the heroism of those who braved the flood to rescue strangers to the torrent of private relief, hundreds of millions of dollars' worth, now pouring in from across the country.

In his classic ''Man's Search for Meaning," the great psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl wrote: ''There are two races of men in this world . . . the 'race' of the decent man and the 'race' of the indecent man." Each of us chooses which ''race" to belong to. In New Orleans last week, the decent and the indecent made their choice.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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