OK–which media story about the widespread looting in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina do you find more credible:

This, from today’s Washington Post?

“But, as we are also learning from the post-Katrina chaos, what we think of as looting may be more complicated than it seems.

“Benigno E. Aguirre of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware has been watching and reading about looters in Louisiana. ‘It may look from the outside as if they are stealing or breaking the law,’ says Aguirre, ‘when in fact some of them are trying to survive’….

“There are the disenfranchised who jump at the chance to get even with those who have more stuff than they do….

“Wire services reported thieves stealing guns from stores and a policeman and a looter who engaged in a shootout. ‘Amid the chaos Wednesday,’ the Associated Press reported, ‘thieves commandeered a forklift and used it to push up the storm shutters and break the glass of a pharmacy. The crowd stormed the store, carrying out so much ice, water and food that it dropped from their arms as they ran. The street was littered with packages of ramen noodles and other items. Looters also chased down a state police truck full of food.’

“Who is to say whether these were criminals or people desperate to survive, Aguirre says.”

Or this, from Yahoo this morning?

“In a sign of growing lawlessness, Tenet HealthCare Corp. asked authorities late Wednesday to help evacuate a fully functioning hospital in Gretna after a supply truck carrying food, water and medical supplies was held up at gunpoint.

“‘There are physical threats to safety from roving bands of armed individuals with weapons who are threatening the safety of the hospital,’ said spokesman Steven Campanini. He estimated there were 350 employees in the hospital and between 125 to 150 patients.

“Tempers flared elsewhere across the devastated region. Police said a man in Hattiesburg, Miss., fatally shot his sister in the head over a bag of ice. Dozens of carjackings were reported, including a nursing home bus. One officer was shot in the head and a looter was wounded in a
shootout. Both were expected to survive.

“Looters used garbage cans and inflatable mattresses to float away with food, clothes, TV sets – even guns. Outside one pharmacy, thieves commandeered a forklift and used it to push up the storm shutters and break through the glass. The driver of a nursing-home bus surrendered the vehicle to thugs after being threatened.”

Ah yes, to us they’re lawless, violent criminals, but to the Washington Post and its crew of academic sound-biters, they’re the “disenfranchised.” 

Unfortunately, just as the levees were breaking that plunged the Katrina-battered city of New Orleans into chaos and despair, I was belatedly catching up with my moviegoing at the wonderful “Cinderella Man.”

This film about 1935 heavyweight champ Jim Braddock (played by Russell Crowe) was set during the bottom of the Depression, when one-third of Americans were unemployed (including Braddock himself until he won the title) and the kind of hunger and deprivation that we now see in New Orleans was a way of life for many people for years on end. At the film’s beginning Braddock’s just a washed-up contender who most days can’t even find day labor on the Hudson River docks and gives the breakfast from his own plate to his famished little daughter. Yet he’s got self-respect and honor, two things money can’t buy but even the poorest man and woman can possess. When one of his sons swipes a salami, Braddock marches the boy down to the butcher shop to give it back. “We don’t steal,” he says. “Bad off as we are, we don’t take things that don’t belong to us.” That was the ethos that reigned in America 70 years ago, when we were a lot worse off than we are today.

Now I find it perfectly understandable, if all the stores have been closed and abandoned in the wake of the flooding, to lift a quart of milk to feed the baby or some bandages for Grandma–although I’d sure as heck want to pay the store right back once the emergency was over.

But I’ve got a little problem with TV sets and guns–because for some reason, unlike Prof. Aguirre, I can’t work up any sympathy for the “disenfranchised.” As for carjackings, holding up medical-supplies trucks, and shooting at a military helicopter from the Superdome–I get into death-penalty territory. When the U.S. Army swept into Germany at the end of World War II, there were standing orders that all military personnel caught looting would be shot on the spot. Time for a revival of that rule.