Thursday, September 01, 2005

Psychology of Group Think


A person wrote a comment asking why the majority of looters were black in New Orleans. No doubt, people of all races cringe at the sight of other people in the light of day breaking through a store gate and taking whatever they want--"like they were shopping"--a guy said in Mississippi.

To address the skin color issue: after one Google search I found that 67.5% of New Orleans residents happen to be black. See the overall stats here. That's over 2/3 of the population. It would stand to reason that the majority of the looters would be the majority race. Enough on that.

But why looters at all? It happened in Bagdad. Fictionalized accounts, Victor Hugos's classic Les Miserables comes to mind, also show a certain kind of people exploiting disasterous situations. It can be noted here that Les Mis documents the horrid conditions in France around 100 years before the French Revolution. These people were white. Looting is as old as disasters and war.

Back to the question: why looting? No doubt, some criminals saw the impending doom of Hurricane Katrina as a boon to their bad business. In fact, I'll bet some planned their heists in advance. Look at the what Thenardier, the shopkeeper and thief's in Les Mis, response to the battle between the students and the French military:
Thenardier is picking through the corpses in the sewers.]
Here's a hint of gold
Stuck into a tooth
Pardon me M'sieur
You won't be needing this no more.
Shouldn't be too hard to sell.
Add it to the pile
Add it to the stock
Here among the sewer rats
A breath away from hell
You get accustomed to the smell.
Well someone's got to clean 'em up, my friends
Bodies on the highway
Law and order upside down
Someone's got to collect their odds and ends
As a service to the town!
[Valjean arrives, carrying Marius, and collapses.
Thenardier robs Marius.]
Here's a tasty ring
Pretty little thing
Wouldn't want to waste it
That would really be a crime
Thank you sir, I'm in your debt
Here's another toy
Take it off the boy
His heart's no longer going
And he's lived his little time
But his watch is ticking yet!
Well, someone's got to clean them up, my friends
Before the little harvest
Disappears into the mud
Someone's got to collect their odds and ends
When the gutters run with blood.
It's a world where the dog eats the dog
Where they kill for bones in the street
And God in His Heaven
He don't interfere
'Cause he's dead as the stiffs at my feet
I raise my eyes to see the heavens
And only the moon looks down
The harvest moon shines down!
[He turns over Valjean's body, recognizes him, and leaves.
I think this describes the motives and rationalizations of some better than anything I could write. These scum stand in start contrast to others who also suffer injustice and do the right thing anyway. These people are the majority but don't make the 6 o'clock news.

The actions of a few criminals open the floodgates. Normally law-abiding people will break the law when given "permission" by others. Let me give you two examples: in New York City Mayor Guilliani cut crime but cracking down on the people who jumped turnstyles to ride the subway for free. Once one person did it, everyone--even regular Joes who would never normally "steal" from the city in this way--did. Another example, here in Texas people get stuck in traffic jams around cities. Well, lots of people drive SUVs down here and the way the roads are engineered, when you get stuck, you can drive over the median and get on the highway "feeder" road and escape the madness. Most people, even under jammed circumstances won't do this. But, let one brave person go off road and lots and lots of people will follow. The norm has been broken and other feel empowered to break it.

Another element to this behavior: most people would not commit these crimes if they knew the shop-owners. They would feel bad because they would know that their actions would hurt a friend. But the more removed people feel from the victim, the more emboldened they become. The victim is nameless and faceless even if the person is right there for me to see--I feel no connection to him or her as a person. The looter's connection to his or her own desire or need is greater than his connection to the person they violate. Remember the Nazis?

Not all people looting on the coast would normally loot, but they have the opportunity and they are taking it. Understanding why they loot doesn't mean they should be absolved of guilt. They should be prosecuted. Harshly. They are breaking the law.

Just like me when I drive my big Suburban up and over the grass to freedom.
More blogs about the woodlands rita.