TCS Daily

From New Orleans to Gaza

By Michael Rosen - September 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Watching last week's sickening footage of the desecration of Gaza's synagogues and other holy places, I couldn't help thinking I'd seen this movie before.

The astonishing images of young, armed men running riot around a once-civilized place, of people hauling furniture and goods out of abandoned buildings, and of authorities unable -- or at least unwilling -- to stop them: these sights had become all-too-familiar the past few weeks.

In fact, the world had witnessed strikingly similar grotesqueries afflict New Orleans in the devastating wake of Hurricane Katrina. As usual, this movie came out in the U.S. before its release abroad.

The ransacking of Gaza's holy places and the looting of New Orleans's shops have much in common: both were shockingly offensive to behold; both were committed in the face of law enforcement agents who at best ignored the wrongdoing and at worst abetted it; both were (badly) defended by their apologists; and both victimized not only their immediate targets -- the synagogues and the stores, the Jews and the shopkeepers -- but also the communities in which these criminals reside.

By now the bestial pictures of the destruction of Gaza's synagogues at the hands of Palestinian mobs have been seared into the memories of anyone of good conscience unlucky enough to observe the horrifying spectacle. As Palestinian security forces stood idly by, hundreds of their countrymen flocked to the newly evacuated settlements, ripping beams out of doorways, absconding with synagogue benches, stripping irrigation tubing from greenhouses, and setting fires to the structures after they'd picked them clean.

Uniformed, armed members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad gleefully stomped on Jewish stars and other symbols and brandished their grenade launchers as if they had conquered the sites themselves. The feckless Palestinian Authority (PA) police -- who were surely intimidated and who must have enjoyed the spectacle -- didn't lift a finger. PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas triumphantly declared "a day of happiness and joy that the Palestinian people have not witnessed for a century."

The scene in New Orleans was comparably horrifying. As Lake Pontchartrain flooded the Crescent City, many of its residents began breaking into boarded-up supermarkets and helping themselves to food and supplies. Some more brazenly entered pharmacies and sporting goods stores to retrieve other items of arguable necessity. This swiftly gave way to outright looting of jewelry stores, electronics shops, and gun depots, often followed by the torching of the emptied buildings.

The looters were nothing if not enterprising. Many of them deployed supermarket carts and wheeled trash barrels to carry their booty. Some even used forklifts to pry open steel-shuttered shops. In more heavily waterlogged areas, others dragged rafts teeming with stereo components and other electronic equipment. Worse yet, some marauders focused their evil energies on helpless people, raping, assaulting, and even murdering fellow citizens.

Only at this point did the police -- who had been under informal instruction to permit certain kinds of looting, so long as no one was getting hurt - begin to take an interest in ending the mob violence. Of course, the brave officers who took action did not count among their ranks the 20-30% of the force who deserted or happily joined the looters.

But why blame the offenders themselves? In Gaza, isn't Israel at fault for the reprehensible behavior of the Palestinians who, long oppressed and impoverished, were simply venting their collective frustration? After all, as Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat whined, "It is a very unfair decision to put us in a situation where if we demolish [the synagogues] we will be doomed, and if we don't, we'll be doomed." Erakat apparently didn't realize that the PA itself could have quietly, respectfully dismantled the synagogues while cordoning off the area from rioters. (Israel elected not to do so itself because, according to most opinions, Jewish law forbids the deconstruction of holy places).

So too did several commentators here refuse to blame the looters for their conduct. One New Orleans official said "When there's no food, no water, no sanitation, who can say what you'd do? People were trying to protect their children." One university professor stated "It may look from the outside as if they are stealing or breaking the law, when in fact some of them are trying to survive."

These justifications may be true as far as they go, but they don't go very far. True, many New Orleanians desperately sought food and water -- not DVD players or beer -- for their families and we shouldn't pass judgment on them.

But many, many others committed inexcusable violence against people and property. The cowardly failure of political and intellectual elites to condemn them -- one went so far as to justify stealing electronic equipment because televisions could be bartered for food -- amounts to infantilizing the perpetrators and will endure as a particularly shameful chapter in an already sordid tale.

These excuses are most harmful to the communities in whose names the apologists purport to speak. Of course, the ransacking of Gaza's synagogues was meant to intimidate Israelis and Jews around the world, just as the Big Easy looting aimed to show the police and innocent civilians who was in charge. These were the craven deeds of small men trying to appear big. Shocking as they were, though, these atrocities will not succeed in cowing their direct targets.

Instead, the wrongdoers have inflicted far greater harm on their own communities. In Gaza, the desecrators of holy places have deeply undermined Palestinian territorial and political claims as well as invited reprisals from the Israeli far-right (which, too, would plainly be wrong). Worse, as many in Israel and around the world are realizing, if this is what the PA allows to befall synagogues in Gaza, imagine what would happen in Jerusalem!

For their part, New Orleans's looters terrorized businesses and people in their own neighborhoods, giving nary a thought to the long-term impact of their rampage on their communities.

Michael M. Rosen, a regular contributor to TCS, has spent two years living in Israel and is currently an attorney in San Diego.

To see more of the extensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina from TCS, click here.


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