Originating off the tip of Africa, hurricanes often flood various parts of the US; sometimes Miami, now New Orleans. In Europe, “hurricanes” are merely very heavy rains. In 2002, Prague was greatly affected by the flooding caused from excessive downpour. You can see there is a striking difference.

When a hurricane occurs in America, news coverage tells not only of the damage caused by the rains, but also of the simultaneous destruction caused by the people of the cities these natural disasters affect! Namely uncontrolled looting is referenced time and time again during these times of crisis.

In Europe, when there is news of rain damage, there is never reference to looting, murders, or any of the atrocities that are happening right now in New Orleans. Interestingly, when the Tsunami hit South East Asia less than year ago, the news was also of death by nature. There was no mention of uncontrolled rioting and looting. Even rival factions in Sri Lanka ceased fighting during the tragedy. The question(s) I am trying to answer now is why these two reactions to natural disasters are not only on opposite sides of the globe but on opposite ends of the spectrum? Why is it that in America looting happens after blackouts or natural tragedies whilst in Europe and Asia focus is seemingly on humanitarian outreach alone?

Before further exploring my own thoughts on the matter, I will add this disclaimer: I have not studied the subject, and those that derive from its exploration, in any great depth.

Having said that, it is beyond me why there are shop owners with guns in front of their stores with signs that say, “You loot I shoot” as CNN is reporting today from New Orleans. Nonetheless, my assumption is that there are two elements at play here. One is the quality of the educational system in a country. Two is the equality of wealth distribution within a society and the stratification between classes. My argument would be that citizens are more prone to solidarity and less prone to destructive behavior in countries where education or a greater sense of obligation reaches everyone (i.e. would be looters). Wealth and education should be distributed in such a way that people don’t view absence of legal authority as an opportunity to steal. Am I right? I don’t know. I do know there’s much more to this. But the simple fact is that while Americans steal in the absence of police, Europeans and Asians do not. Or certainly not to the same extent.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

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Sven C. Koehler on September 6, 2005  · 

I would like to add that NO was known to had a major drug problem, and this explains a lot why many people went crazy after the supply was cut off for so many days.

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Antoin O Lachtnain on September 8, 2005  · 

Well, one of the reasons why the people in New Orleans looted was that they just didn’t have any food (not necessarily the only reason). The relief operation was just really badly delivered.

I have heard it said that some of the bad behaviour was because the place was full of strung-out crack addicts (all the dealers had left town).

Some of the stories from the Superdome seem to be urban legends rather than actual verifiable stories. There are no named victims or first-hand witnesses for the worst atrocities.

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Nate on September 24, 2005  · 

Interesting that your take is that a more equitable society would produce less looting. Perhaps true in Europe, but in Asia? The right-wing take on the looters is that decades of government care have created people who are unable to care for themselves. The left-wing take is that government has not cared enough for these people. Round it goes.

Perhaps looting is a result of the good old-fashioned American spirit of opportunism and dislike of authority?

I don’t see why you decry the “You loot, I shoot” signs. In the absence of police presence, what other means does a person have to protect their belongings than to rely on the threat (and execution) of physical violence? Or would you prefer they just let them loot? Yeah, they’re insured, but then that costs everybody in increased insurance costs. Why should a disaster be an excuse to steal?

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