The 8.8 magnitude earthquake that shook Chile on February 27th led to hundreds of deaths, millions displaced and unimaginable damage to the country’s infrastructure. Communication lines were severed, hundreds trapped under the rubble, entire fishing villages washed away, shortage of food and drinking water and a constant sense of fear and insecurity. The intense aftershocks and tsunami warnings kept reminding Chileans of nature’s power and wrath.
To add to all this chaos and commotion, people started looting homes and stores. Stores were emptied of necessities such as food but also of electronic and other items, and it got to an extent that the military had to be deployed in the streets. Many civilians started patrolling and guarding their own neighborhoods against looters to protect the little that they had left.
Such behavior is not uncommon. It has been seen that whenever a disaster hits a region, people react very differently to how they would in normal times. Episodes of violence, looting and hooliganism erupt almost instantly. Is this because of our survival instinct? Do such extreme situations make it okay to encroach on others lives and property? Are our moral codes as well as human laws only meant for normal everyday life?
Such behavior seems to suggest that humans only obey rules and codes when it is convenient to do so and especially when law and order is forcefully maintained. When the probability of consequences and detection is low we tend to resort to measures we wouldn’t otherwise contemplate. It is an interesting psyche.
Maybe such behavior has to do with the amount of trust people have in their government. If one feels that help is on the way maybe such acts wouldn’t be committed. For instance, in New Orleans these episodes flared after a few days when people saw that the government will not be as forthcoming in aid as people had thought initially. In Haiti, the government became totally defunct causing alarm and a feeling of helplessness leading to people taking matters into their own hands. On the contrary, in Chile it was easier to control these episodes of looting by deploying the military to establish order, and government efforts gave citizens the feeling that things were in relative control.
It could also be linked to the economic conditions of people. In Haiti, the violence and looting took on a life of its own. People were murdered in the streets over resources and looters ransacked the cities. The desperation of poor Haitians who had very little to begin with could be the cause, as well as the massive scale of destruction that they saw around them (over 200,000 dead in Haiti versus 300 in Chile). Maybe it is just a case of personal values. Some people use such disasters to commit crimes and take undue advantage of the situation by taking what isn’t rightfully theirs. It could even be a case of a nation’s value system. Some nations look inwards for aid and assistance, helping each other and sharing whatever they have, while others look towards the international community for help and hold the mentality of survival of the fittest.
In such dire circumstances morals take a back seat. It is much easier to judge people from a distance and condemn their behavior, when in fact history shows that if in the same situation most people would demonstrate similar behavior. Drawing a line becomes extremely tricky, but it is safe to say that taking bread to curb starvation is very different from taking a TV, especially when power lines are down.