The Duke University class I teach on family and community had no trouble with the New Orleans "looters" who smashed store windows for food and clothing. They had done their reading, so they understood that an important element of what makes a community work is the willingness of people to abide by agreed-upon rules.
But the floods and impending starvation on the Gulf Coast, they agreed, suspended the rules. Survival was an overriding "virtue," they said -- so long as the necessities weren't taken directly from another person in similar desperate straits.
And maybe even then, some of them thought. While a few would choose to die rather than wrest food from the gnarled hands of a starving old woman, several thought that the biological imperative to survive might trump even such uncivilized behavior as that.
No senseless looting for material goods (even if the purloined laptop might become the price of a ride to Baton Rouge?). No firing on rescue workers. No carjackings. But if the waters were rising swiftly enough, and the helicopter lifts were working slowly enough, one could perhaps justify elbowing one's way nearer to the front of the rescue line. After all, though one might defer to a weaker blood relative or spouse, survival is the most basic urge there is.
Then I reminded them of what they all knew: that sometime in the next few weeks, when things have returned to normal and Hurricane Katrina has been replaced by Supreme Court confirmation hearings or escalating slaughter in Iraq as Topic A, they will see on the 6 o'clock news some teenager accused of shooting a shopkeeper or robbing a convenience store or selling crack. And the youngster's explanation for his dreadful behavior? "You got to survive."
The point of this small exercise was neither to justify lawlessness nor to raise looting to a level of particular importance in the catastrophe that befell the Gulf Coast. It was, rather, to observe that the rules -- legislated and otherwise -- that make our communities work don't exist as moral abstractions. We uphold them because they work for us -- at least until we find ourselves under water.
What we forget is that some people in some communities see themselves as under water pretty much all the time.
Our rules -- deal fairly with one another, avoid violence, obey the law -- don't always make sense to them because the rules don't always make their lives more livable. And yet we think they should go on following our rules because it makes our lives more livable.
I'm talking about poor people, of course, but not all poor people. Some poor people are among the most law-abiding people I know. But some see themselves as outcasts reduced to basic survival.
They see themselves this way in part because many Americans don't see them at all. Erstwhile visitors to New Orleans still remark how surprised they were to see the masses of the very poor holed up in the Superdome or on freeway overpasses. They had no idea!
And most of us have no idea of the desperately poor in our own towns. They don't exist for us except when crime or social cost or catastrophe puts them on our screen.
And even then we are likely to miss the point of their existence. They wouldn't be poor, we tell ourselves, if they lived by our rules. A number of e-mails of the past few days make the point: Poor people are often the cause of their own poverty.
It's mostly true. There are people who, like many of those pitiful souls we saw waiting to be rescued from the floodwaters last week, are in dire straits because they ignored our well-meant advice. But some, like those ride-less New Orleans residents who couldn't get out, simply haven't been able to translate our advice into action: Stop having babies, save enough to move away, get married.
I'm not saying it's all society's fault that our rules don't work for them. But I am saying that it is in society's interest to make sure they do, rather than sit blithely while the growing gap between them and us produces a community destroying economic disequilibrium.
What can we do? At the very least, we should see to it that no one who works hard all week has to live in poverty and without access to good health care.