9/15/2005

Boston Globe: How bad was the loooting ?

if criminal violence were indeed rampant in New Orleans after Katrina hit (setting aside the taking of food, water, bandages, and other necessities of survival), that would contradict much of what sociologists have learned in a half century of research about such situations. ''The evidence is overwhelming," says Enrico Quarantelli, an emeritus professor of sociology and the founding director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, ''that in the standard natural disaster or technological disaster"--like a chemical spill--''you're not going to get looting."

Many observers have found the footage of looting and reports of crime to be, in the words of New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, ''one of the most dispiriting" aspect of the tragedy. Slate's William Saletan went so far as to call it ''a second-wave destructive force" that must be anticipated in future disaster planning. Yet Quarantelli and a half-dozen other experts on disaster aftermaths and crowd behavior contacted last week insisted that follow-up investigations will reveal that the impression of Hobbesian violence in New Orleans over the past two weeks was created in large part by rumor and amplified by sometimes credulous reporters. The scholars' suspicions are fueled by what they say is a well-documented history of misinformation during disasters--and a general human tendency to misread crowds, even violent ones, as more malevolent than they really are.

''As a researcher, I base what I say on evidence and there was no evidence for a lot of what was being reported," says Kathleen Tierney, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and director of the Natural Hazards Center there. ''I don't think I've ever seen such an egregious example of victim blaming as I have in this disaster."

Are these scholars the equivalent of Donald Rumsfeld when he said television created the appearance of looting in post-invasion Baghdad by running and re-running the same footage of one man stealing an urn? It's possible, but already, as journalists like Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune and Matt Welch of Reason magazine, have pointed out, many widely reported rumors have proved false or are at least unconfirmed.

''We don't have any substantiated rapes," the New Orleans Police superintendent Edwin Compass told the British newspaper The Guardian, speaking of the situation at the Superdome. Nor have any bodies of victims of foul play turned up there. The Federal Aviation Administration and military officials have cast doubt on the story of the rescue helicopter that came under fire outside Kenner Memorial Hospital on Aug. 31

Up for grabs - The Boston Globe

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