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Shotgun News, November 1, 2005, pp. 20-21
Lord of the Flies, Cajun Style
In 1651, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes described anarchy--that is, where there is no government--as: "the war of all against all." In Hobbes's view, humans were fundamentally evil, and unless restrained by some greater power, individuals in a state of anarchy were condemned to lives "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." What a dark view of humanity! How cynical, how depressing, how unloving! Every few years, we have one of those reminders that Hobbes was right--or at least, right enough that we shouldn't plan on abolishing government yet. This year's reminder was what happened in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina.
I have a pretty dark view of humanity--to quote the New England Primer, a Colonial America textbook for children, "In Adam's fall, we sinned all." Humans have within them a capacity for sin that must be restrained: ideally by moral teaching and social pressure, and secondarily by a criminal justice system of police and courts. As a last resort, what usually restrains a criminal is the victim drawing a gun.
What happened in New Orleans? The Crescent City wasn't the only part of the Gulf Coast that experienced the fury of Katrina. Lots of little towns were hit hard, and some were utterly destroyed. Unfortunately, New Orleans seems to have been the perfect storm of human incompetence and evil.
While officials are still throwing blame around with more energy than Katrina threw trees, it seems quite clear that New Orleans failed to properly implement their disaster plan. Most people with a car and somewhere to go left New Orleans. Perhaps 100,000 people stayed behind. Some were unable to leave because they didn't have a car, or they didn't have a large enough car to evacuate the entire family. Some didn't take the hurricane hazard seriously. Some stayed because they were too sick to leave. Some were hospitalized--and at least one nursing home appears to have abandoned its patients as the waters rose--and 34 patients drowned in their beds.1
New Orleans did have the capacity to relocate many of these people, rather than let them drown--or worse. As I write this, there are at least 255 school buses sitting in flood waters that were available to transport at least 16,000 of the desperately poor out of the city. (More, of course, if those buses made multiple trips.) Instead, they were left in the rising waters--and now they are ruined, because they weren't driven out of town before the hurricane hit. The diesel fuel in those buses has also contributed to a major environmental disaster.2
Unfortunately, some of those who stayed were mentally ill. New Orleans, like most large American cities now, has a huge population of mentally ill people wandering the streets, too scared or crazy to consider evacuation--even if New Orleans had offered them the chance.
Also like most large American cities, New Orleans has a huge population of career criminals who have made it into a hellhole even when the police can respond to 911 calls. It appears that many of these criminals decided to stay when Katrina hit. Here was the perfect opportunity to loot businesses, and terrorize those who remained.
Everyone, I think, has heard about the looting after Katrina blew through. Most people recognize that breaking into a store to get food, water, or diapers under the circumstances was understandable. In a few cases, there are examples of theft that I can only call praiseworthy. Eighteen year old Jabbor Gibson took an abandoned bus, filled it up with whoever wanted to leave the hellhole that was New Orleans, and drove to Houston, picking up passengers as they escaped the rising flood waters. For saving so many lives, there was brief discussion of prosecuting Mr. Gibson for vehicle theft.3 (I think the District Attorney might have trouble finding a jury to convict him.)
Unfortunately, there were plenty of examples much uglier, with criminals stealing big screen TV sets and consumer electronics--in a city without electricity. Not surprisingly, with the police department effectively out of action (their radio system lost power, and the backup generator wouldn't run), a lot of people took the law into their own hands, protecting their property--and sometimes protecting their persons as well. There were many incidents of civilians engaging in armed self-defense across the affected states--so many that it was hard to keep track of them all. In one New Orleans neighborhood, the residents banded together to fight off the savages.4 In other places, such as the quaintly named Picayune, Mississippi, individuals stood their ground, defending their storm-ravaged homes.5
Still, as frightening as these events were, the looters were primarily looking to steal property. Violence against people was part of that process, but not the primary goal. Such robberies were nothing compared to the horrifying accounts of what happened in the Superdome. There's still some question as to how many of the disgusting reports that came out were accurate, but I've read enough news stories where reporters described events that they saw, or quoted people (sometimes National Guardsmen) with first-hand accounts of these crimes. Children raped and murdered. Old people in wheelchairs beaten to death.6 People attacked and threatened solely because of their race. (They were British tourists.)7 As the Australian newpaper The Age described the experience of some Australian tourists, "The Aussies stuck together and the men protected the women, forming a tight circle around them while gangs prowled the stadium preying on women, children and the weak.... 'There were gangsters, thugs, rapists, child molesters, anything you want to put in there, it was in there. They were molesting children that we saw.'"8 These are the sort of stories that make you wonder what sort of monsters would take advantage of the situation to commit these sort of crimes on their fellow refugees from the storm.
It is very easy, if you haven't seen the dark side of humanity, to convince yourself that you don't need a gun: the police will protect you. Situations like this exposing the dark side of the human condition rips away the last of such illusions. Wal-Mart temporarily stopped selling guns in the New Orleans area a few days after the hurricane. Fortunately, full service gun and sporting goods stores were ready to take up the slack. One gun store owner reported that a woman came in "to buy her first gun after she and her two children, ages 9 and 12, witnessed a slaying on the streets of New Orleans.... ''Her comment was, "I was a card-carrying, antigun liberal -- not anymore," ' Roe said. ''She said, "I'm going back home, and I am not going back unarmed." ' "9
When you see the world as it really is--not as you would like it to be, but as it really is, with its ugliness and occasional savagery--it is hard to imagine being unarmed--and especially in New Orleans, post-Katrina. And yet the New Orleans Police Department decided that the solution to the problem of disorder and gang members wandering the streets, shooting at rescue helicopters and repair crews was....to disarm every private citizen. Their solution was not to do a background check on those carrying guns, and arrest those with felony convictions. Nor did the city prohibit carrying of guns in public (which, under the circumstances, might almost make some sense). No, New Orleans city government decided that the solution to lawless criminals engaging in felonious assaults was to disarm the victims as well. Even worse, private security guards were not disarmed.10 As usual, the rules that apply to little people don't apply to the rich, or to wealthy corporations.
The Second Amendment, like the rest of the Bill of Rights, was not written by fanatics. There were certain well-understood exceptions to these guarantees in times of crisis. During the American Revolution, for example, state governments had disarmed Tories when it seemed necessary for public safety. I suppose that there are extraordinary circumstances today that might justify a general disarming of individuals. I have spent a couple of days trying to imagine such a scenario, but the most plausible one starts out with, "The multitentacled ambassador from Tau Ceti 5 developed severe amnesia in both brains after eating kung pao chicken...." The situation in New Orleans is not such an extraordinary circumstance--quite the opposite. If there was ever a situation that justified law-abiding citizens being armed, it was New Orleans' descent into hell.
1Associated Press, "La. Nursing Home Owners Charged in Deaths," September 13, 2005, http://www.breitbart.com/news/2005/09/13/D8CJKLHG5.html, last accessed September 14, 2005.
2"Bus-ted! Update," Junkyard Blog, September 3, 2005, http://junkyardblog.net/archives/week_2005_08_28.html#004752, last accessed September 14, 2005.
3Mark Steyn, "The Big Easy rocked, but didn't roll," Telegraph, September 6, 2005, http://www.opinion.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2005/09/06/do0602.xml&sSheet=/opinion/2005/09/06/ixopinion.html, last accessed Septemer 14, 2005.
4Bob Dart, "Band of neighbors survived Hurricane Katrina, then fought off looters," Austin [Texas] American-Statesman, September 10, 2005, http://www.statesman.com/search/content/auto/epaper/editions/today/news_342278fe0324917e000f.html, last accessed September 14, 2005.
5Jim Schoettler, "Reunion reveals harrowing days after storm," [Jacksonville] Florida Times-Union, September 7, 2005, http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/090705/met_19700244.shtml, last accessed September 14, 2005.
6Brian Thevenot, "Bodies found piled in freezer at Convention Center," nola.com, September 6, 2005, http://www.nola.com/weblogs/print.ssf?/mtlogs/nola_tporleans/archives/print077206.html, last accessed September 14, 2005.
7"British tourists 'flee Superdome'," BBC News, September 2, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/wear/4208792.stm, last accessed September 14, 2005.
8Frank Walker, "Superdome a hellhole: Aussies tell," The Age, September 4, 2005, http://www.theage.com.au/news/world/superdome-a-hellhole-aussies-tell/2005/09/03/1125302782219.html?oneclick=true, last accessed September 14, 2005.
9Sasha Talcott, "Halted gun sales infuriate customers," Boston Globe, September 11, 2005, http://www.boston.com/news/weather/articles/2005/09/11/halted_gun_sales_infuriate_customers/, last accessed September 14, 2005.
10Alex Berenson and Timothy Williams, "New Orleans Begins Confiscating Firearms as Water Recedes," New York Times, September 8, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/08/national/nationalspecial/08cnd-storm.html, last accessed September 15, 2005.