Monday, January 18, 2010

The Paradox of Security in Disasters: Suffering, Looting and Delay in Haiti

As the days have passed since the devastating earth quake struck in Haiti a week ago tomorrow, two themes have dominated the media coverage: when will water and food reach the struggling survivors in the streets of Port au Prince and when will the violence start. I'm worried, and I hope I'm wrong, that our national obsession with crime as the number threat (which we have spread to much of the rest of the world) is bringing these two themes together. Is the slow pace of aid being driven in part by the the priority that security is receiving?

I am not reassured by the quotes coming from American military personnel on NPR's Morning Edition today, questionable homilies about how law and order is the necessary prerequisite for all other aid. Is that right? The people of Haiti seem to have done a pretty amazing job remaining calm and dignified in the face of unbelievable suffering and death (generally demoralizing forces one would assume). The only violence reported in this morning's reporting by Damien Cave and Deborah Sontag in the New York Times, involved the summary execution of looters by Haitian police. Perhaps unchecked looting would lead to ever more violence, but the long delays in getting water to people has surely added to the potential for disorder when supplies finally reach the desperate.

I trust the military's own disaster specialists more than I do the US media which has been expectantly waiting for outbreaks of violence since the day after the quake. As we saw in the coverage of Hurricane Katrina and New Orlean's, the US media looks for a crime story first; especially when a national drama is playing out in an urban area and when the protagonists have dark skin. In that case, a city's remarkable dignity and courage were obliterated in a near "white-out" of mostly false crime reports. Hopefully that will not happen again. Hopefully, the aid workers and the military's logisticians are listening to the reports from the ground and not the cloud of crime expectation.

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