Mother Nature delivered her own version of "shock and awe" on Monday, leaving the Gulf Coast with the kind of death and destruction that only America's worst enemies could applaud. Without firing a shot or dropping a bomb, Hurricane Katrina pulverized Mississippi, Louisiana and parts of Alabama, wreaking havoc on the lives of hundreds of thousands, as well as the nation's economy, for months to come.

But Katrina did more than lay waste to lives and property. She also taught us a few things about ourselves.

We now know, if we ever needed reminding, that our ranks are filled with humanitarians. They were in evidence in New Orleans, lifting stranded residents off rooftops, ferrying others in boats, delivering life-sustaining supplies, comforting the despondent.

Katrina also brought us the faces of the detestable -- the rabble who tear through the rubble, feeding off the property and misery of others: those for whom a decent society has no use.

And it was the sight of the looting in New Orleans that prompted M.J. of Laurel to e-mail me on Wednesday with this message:

"Most people, especially non-blacks like me, cannot understand what makes black people want to go 'berserk' after a hurricane. Seems the media's cameras only show blacks looting Foot Lockers, Wal-Marts etc. Is that possible??? Is that something that only happens in poor black neighborhoods? Is it a race thing or a poverty thing? Why don't we see Asians, whites or other races doing this or is this something the media only shows when blacks do it???

"Either way, this sight disgusts most reasonable people . . . "

M.J. is hardly alone. Looting in the wake of Katrina was sickening. It wasn't the foraging for food, milk, diapers and toiletries that was upsetting. That part was understandable. It was the smashing of windows to steal watches, television sets, DVDs and guns that was despicable.

It all goes to show what happens when some people get it in their heads that they can take things that don't belong to them without getting caught. All it takes is a time and place where authority is absent. Bring on such a scene for those predators and opportunists always lurking in our midst and, bingo, you have your looters.

But M.J. wasn't asking why people loot. He wanted to know why, in this time of widespread misery and ruin, black people are doing all that plundering.

First, to state the obvious: The people caught stealing on camera in that majority-black city weren't doing it because they were black. Just as raiders of corporate treasuries don't do it because they are white. Skin color has nothing to do with the urge to take what doesn't belong to you. Poverty also isn't the reason liquor gets stolen in a storm-ravaged city.

The looter on Canal Street in New Orleans and the corporate looter on Wall Street have a similar motive: greed. That is their taproot. And greed is no respecter of pigmentation, income, status or social class.

Not a lot was made of it, but in the wake of the World Trade Center destruction on Sept. 11, 2001, shops and restaurants on the retail concourse were looted. The looting, reported the New York Times, occurred in an area that it was virtually impossible for civilians to enter because of the security around the site. One of the two men arrested and charged with stealing watches was a former New York City corrections officer posing as a cop.

But why must this tragedy be viewed only through a racial prism? We are in a time of cascading crises.

The desolate faces seen in Darfur and Niger are now walking the roads in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Baghdad isn't the only city with unattended corpses. Calcutta's conditions, which brought me to tears when I saw them, have now come to the Crescent City.

Did you ever think we would speak of refugees in America?

Restoring authority and electricity, feeding and sheltering the homeless, are more urgent than indulging our racial fantasies and phobias.

I'd rather focus on the groups that are rallying to help the victims. I'm pleased to be part of a city that is opening up its D.C. Armory to serve as a temporary shelter for hundreds of victims. Our mayor is sending buses to pick up people being evacuated along the Gulf Coast. Doors are opening in the nation's capital even as homes are being closed forever down South. Mayor Anthony Williams said yesterday that he hoped other jurisdictions will follow suit. "If every city on the East Coast shelters 400 people, we can ease the suffering of tens of thousands of people," he said. Collectively, even with a late and faltering federal response, the nation can do a lot. The president of the United States, however, hardly warrants a footnote.

And outrage? It has its place. For that there are targets galore stretching from the New Orleans region to Washington. There will be plenty of time for fault-finding -- a task that we in Washington do oh so well. But not now. This is a time for action.

Katrina is a test for the nation, a critical examination for us all, public and private. That is unless you're inclined to sit this one out in the armchair and second-guess.