We fear the anarchy, the feral fanaticism and, at the heart of it, the primeval bugbear of someone coming after our homes, our stores, our stuff.
To follow the news on television the past couple of days, looters have pretty much taken over the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "The fear, of course," said talk show host Tucker Carlson, who is less breathy and sensationalist than most, "is that looting contributes to the sense that things are out of control, and that lawlessness begins to snowball, and that stealing becomes murder."
It's among the scariest and nastiest of nightmares. One person breaks a store window, others seem to gain courage and storm the establishment. In the popular mind, we are watching mob psychology in dangerous action.
But, as we are also learning from the post-Katrina chaos, what we think of as looting may be more complicated than it seems.
Benigno E. Aguirre of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware has been watching and reading about looters in Louisiana. "It may look from the outside as if they are stealing or breaking the law," says Aguirre, "when in fact some of them are trying to survive."
On the other hand, he says, some of the thieves are garden-variety crooks. "There is always a very small number of people that are predisposed to crime, and they see a disaster as an opportunity to act."
There are the disenfranchised who jump at the chance to get even with those who have more stuff than they do. "Disasters can become opportunity for class warfare, and that kind of appropriation of other people's property should be prosecuted," he says,
There are looters, he says, but "people use the concept of looting without making distinctions."
Many may be people taking drastic measures required by drastic times. And some, he says, are the in-an-emergency equivalent of hunters/gatherers, foraging for food, fresh water, medicine, matches, batteries, everyday essentials that are just not available. Not at home, not at shelters.
Aguirre, who lived in New Orleans while in graduate school at Tulane, has been studying for more than 30 years the ways people respond to disaster and tragedy -- after hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and urban riots.
The images are played on TV over and over: Windows are smashed. Huge dudes muscle into an abandoned store and hustle out with stolen TVs and boomboxes. Women hoist unwieldy packs of diapers and cartons of baby formula. Run-amok hooligans snatch up jewelry and electronic gizmos. Other things are stolen: shopping carts of soda pops and snack foods, clothing, bicycles. There are survivors, scavengers and criminal looters, and it's hard to tell the difference.
The idea of looting is often associated in the public mind with "all kinds of other subsidiary concepts," according to Aguirre. He does not believe that what we are seeing in New Orleans is the result of a "crowd mind" or "behavioral contagion."
More images: A kid slinks by with three boxes of shoes. One guy shoulders a batch of fishing rods. A pair of cops joins the thievery, pushing a basket of stolen goods through a Wal-Mart in New Orleans, which according to a TV reporter is on the verge of becoming "a city of outlaws."
Aguirre says: "We want to act as if we can live apart from each other. To me that's the tragedy."
But there were dangerous times yesterday. Wire services reported thieves stealing guns from stores and a policeman and a looter who engaged in a shootout. "Amid the chaos Wednesday," the Associated Press reported, "thieves commandeered a forklift and used it to push up the storm shutters and break the glass of a pharmacy. The crowd stormed the store, carrying out so much ice, water and food that it dropped from their arms as they ran. The street was littered with packages of ramen noodles and other items. Looters also chased down a state police truck full of food."
Who is to say whether these were criminals or people desperate to survive, Aguirre says.
The report also said that the city police chief chased looters away "while city officials themselves were commandeering equipment from a looted Office Depot. During a state of emergency, authorities have broad powers to take private supplies and buildings for their use. At one store, hordes of people from all ages, races and walks of life grabbed food and water. Some drove away with trunkloads of beer."
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said yesterday: "Once we get the 3,000 National Guardsmen here, we're locking this place down. It's really difficult because my opinion of the looting is it started with people running out of food, and you can't really argue with that too much. Then it escalated to this kind of mass chaos where people are taking electronic stuff and all that."
That is a very plausible explanation, Aguirre says. We have never had to evacuate so many people from a city. "This whole thing has gone beyond the likely scenario." Things can get totally out of hand.
Politicians adopted different postures: "I have instructed the Highway Patrol and the National Guard to treat looters ruthlessly," Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told CNN. "Looting will not be tolerated, period. And the rules of engagement will be as aggressive as the law allows."
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said on MSNBC, "Thousands of people are stuck and stranded without food and water. Now, I'm not excusing looting. I'm not the attorney general. I'm not a law enforcement official. But the situation is, is that people have been without food and water."
Some TV journalists are trying to understand the nuances of looting.
Here's a recent exchange between Nancy Grace and Anderson Cooper of CNN:
"It's my understanding," Grace said, "that there has been rampant looting. In fact, martial law declared in other areas. Have you seen looting?"
Cooper replied, "I wouldn't call it looting. What I have seen is desperate people kind of wandering around here in downtown Gulfport. There are a lot of police here in Gulfport, so you can't get away with looting. But I have seen people picking stuff up from the wreckage. I saw a man with two bottles of olive oil. He was hoping to try to cook something up. He says he has no water. He doesn't really have much of a place to go. So there are a lot of people just desperately in need."
The word "loot" comes from Sanskrit and means "booty" or "spoil." It has that basic sound to the ear. Something meaningful; something valuable. In 1860 Dickens wrote of "loot plundered by laundresses."
The verb "to loot" is different from the verb "to pillage," says Mike Agnes, editor in chief of Webster's New World Dictionaries in Cleveland. "Looting puts a criminal tinge on an act, a legal tinge. Pillage is wanton, out-of-control barbaric behavior."
The people on TV appear to be under control. There has been little talk of pillage.
Surely looting dates back to the dawn of humans and their caves full of stuff. Looting has always been a tenet of war. The Vandals looted Rome in the 5th century. The Nazis were notorious looters.
In contemporary times, there has been looting of relief supplies in Somalia and antiquities of Iraq. We've seen looting by the rich before a company like Enron goes bust. And looting by the poor after a National Basketball Association game.
The type of thievery we are seeing in New Orleans, Aguirre says, often happens in the wake of a catastrophe. Similar upheaval occurred in St. Croix in 1989 after Hurricane Hugo and in Los Angeles in 1992 during the Rodney King riots. In St. Croix, as in Louisiana, police were caught stealing.
Understanding the fact that part of a population, and not the whole population, can be criminals is essential to understanding that not everyone who steals is a looter, he says.
Criminals know to strike, he says, when there is chaos and confusion. And there is plenty of both to go around in New Orleans.