The looters are helping themselves to DVD and MP3 players, beer, flat screen TVs, clothing, booze, guns, candy and sporting goods. Some simply loaded up shopping carts with all they could hold and boldly pushed them out the doors and down the sodden streets. "With no police officers in sight," reported The New York Times, "people carried empty bags, shopping carts and backpacks through the door of the Rite Aid on Wednesday and left with them full. As they came and went, the looters nodded companionably to one another."
No doubt there were some desperate residents of New Orleans who took to theft simply to get food and water from stores bereft of clerks and electricity. But most of the looting is not of that character. As good people within the city struggle to help the sick who lack functioning hospitals, the thousands who lack basic food and shelter, and the unknown number still waiting to be rescued from flooded homes, the psychological blow looters are dealing to the city (and the country) is dramatic. As Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco put it, "What angers me most is disasters tend to bring out the best in everybody, and that's what we expected to see. Instead, it has brought out the worst."
Several news organizations have reported that armed gangs are now roving the streets. They raided a nursing home and took whatever they could lay hands on. "We had enough food for 10 days," Peggy Hoffman, the home's director, told the AP. "Now we'll have to equip our department heads with guns and teach them how to shoot."
The evacuation of the steamy, filthy, unsafe Superdome was temporarily halted after a report (which may or may not be true) that shots were fired at a military helicopter attempting to help out. The Superdome is a sink of misery, with toilets backed up, no air conditioning, and a stench so disgusting that authorities are donning face masks when they enter.
Mayor Ray Nagin has ordered New Orleans police officers to halt their search and rescue efforts and focus on apprehending looters. But how much will the suffering of the stranded and needy be prolonged as the police read looters their rights and take them into custody? How many station houses and jails are even above water? Six thousand inmates in the New Orleans area are already scheduled to be moved to higher ground.
The city of New Orleans is descending rapidly into a state of anarchy just when organization and cooperation are most essential. The New York Times reported one scene that is emblematic: "John Carolan was sitting on his porch in the thick, humid darkness just before midnight Tuesday when three or four young men, one with a knife and another with a machete, stopped in front of his fence and pointed to the generator humming in the front yard. [One] said, 'We want that generator.' [Carolan responded] 'I fired a couple of rounds over their heads with a .357 Magnum . . . they scattered. You've heard of the law west of the Pecos? This is the law west of Canal Street.'"
In the midst of this appalling disaster, lawlessness simply cannot be tolerated. The situation is too dire. The pilot of a medical evacuation helicopter in the outlying town of Kenner reportedly refused to land because more than 100 people thronged the landing pad and many had guns. Gunfire has been heard throughout the New Orleans area. Several police officers were stranded on the roof of a hotel when they came under fire from armed criminals in the street. One officer was hit in the head but is expected to survive.
Authorities must attempt to rescue and relocate thousands of people, to care for the injured and disabled, to fight the outbreak of disease, and to attempt, if possible, to pump the sea out of what was only a few days ago a thriving city. If police officers are authorized to shoot looters, this intelligence will spread quickly among the criminal population. The free-for-all will come to an abrupt end. Only then will the fire, police, sanitation, National Guard and private groups be able to do the basics for our suffering compatriots.