With nature’s fury spent over New Orleans, the state of nature moved in. Mayhem reigned and law receded as roving gangs pulled drivers from their cars, stripped stores even of their fixtures, and traded shots with stolen weapons. Random fires lit the night, while holdouts hunkered down in their gutted homes, fearful that any sign of life would draw the riot to their doors. They could expect no aid because the cops had ceded the streets: in one day, 12 chose to turn in their badges rather than face down the mob.

At the Superdome, where some 30,000 fled to escape the floodwaters, one National Guardsman reported 53 deaths in two days—mostly murders. Fights left the losers bleeding in fetid corridors littered with crack vials. At the nearby Convention Center, a seven-year-old boy was found raped and killed, his body stuffed in a freezer. Told of the assaults, Police Chief Eddie Compass sent in a squad of 88 officers—only to have them retreat from the crush of the crowd.

Wyatt Earp has since returned to town. The buses departed, the Superdome drained, there is little left to steal. The Crescent City will be long recovering—if ever. But the torrent took more than centuries of history and so many lives. It washed away a social gloss, revealing rot beneath.

Political profiteers were quick to name it and claim it. Jesse Jackson said, “Today I saw 5,000 African-Americans desperate, perishing, dehydrated, babies dying. It looked like Africans in the hull of a slave ship.” “Is this what the pioneers of the civil rights movement fought to achieve, a society where many black people are as trapped and isolated by their poverty as they were by segregation laws?” asked Fordham professor Mark Naison. Commentator Randall Robinson went further: “New Orleans marks the end of the America I strove for. I am angry against my country for doing nothing when it mattered.”

Advertisement

The images of frantic black faces, packed in close body contact, will endure longer in the American memory than footage of Biloxi’s leveled casinos. We have wanted to believe the platitudes about the best of all worlds swirling together to create, if not quite an identity, something exotic and equalizing. But as this great American city descended into the Third World, diversity couldn’t keep its promises.

During the first 24 hours of coverage, most reporters avoided mentioning the refugees’ obvious common denominator, perhaps for fear of making a career-ending generalization. But as the days dragged on and Fox couldn’t continue to run the same loop of a lone Hispanic looter and single white lawbreaker, observers were forced to note the racial angle, which has since grown to be as significant a story as the natural destruction.

Sixty-seven percent of New Orleans’s population is black. Twenty-eight percent live below the poverty line and account for 88 percent of the city’s unemployment. Many were waiting for government checks due Sept. 1—four days after the storm struck. They didn’t have cars to leave in, cash to pay for an impromptu vacation, or insurance to cover property they weren’t home to protect. But neither did they have a sense that their survival depended on their own initiative—something for which white America might feel more guilty than fleeing the scene in their SUVs.

Decrying the sluggish relief effort, Pastor I.V. Hilliard thundered from the pulpit of his Houston megachurch, “I can’t help but think that race has something to do with it”—a sentiment still playing out wherever the Congressional Black Caucus finds a camera.

Katrina lent new context, but the message is familiar: someone should have done something more for victimized black America. One warehouse wall on the lower edge of town read, “Them bitches flood us. F— Bush.”

Refugees enraged that their rescue didn’t come more swiftly and looters robbing the city’s grave shared a common sense of entitlement. “To be honest with you,” New Orleans resident Mike Franklin told the Associated Press as he watched the looters, “people who are oppressed all their lives, man, it’s an opportunity to get back at society.”

A decent society should be able to evacuate its weakest from a disaster zone, and Louisiana showcased the mismanagement only patronage politics buys. But it’s not unreasonable to expect that, once sheltered, survivors would designate a latrine rather than smearing feces on the walls. And no historical grievance means the self-designated victims are owed a free flatscreen TV.

The makeshift communities at the Superdome and Convention Center seemed to lack any civilizational impulse, firing even on the helicopters sent to save them. Far from rallying to maintain order, they contributed to the chaos or stood numb awaiting aid. Liberals will say that instinct was cheated from them—no plantation boss wants the field hands to organize. More likely, the dividends of victimhood provide an unfortunate incentive to segregate from the social order. In return for maintaining underclass status, minorities—or, in New Orleans’s case, the majority—can impose a satisfying sense of failure on the national conscience and reap boundless programs in return.

Millions of Americans succeed by following the same timeworn path: slug through school, take a job that pays the bills, buy a ring, raise good kids. However quietly desperate, they pose no threat to the social order. They are the order. Not so in urban centers across the country where school is a place to steal sneakers, thugs do business out of car trunks, and teen mothers marry the welfare office.

For decades we’ve sought to narrow the margins with programs aimed at overcoming poverty and raising esteem, thinking success would be pleasant if improbable, while not fearing an immediate return to riots of the late ’60s. But Katrina exposed the thinness of that veneer between civilization and barbarism.

Crisis can elevate the human spirit, turning ordinary men into heroes. Alongside the apocalyptic images came pictures of boat-owners plucking survivors from rooftops and neighbors offering precious water to elderly refugees. But relief workers weren’t the vanguard in this rescue effort—armed soldiers with shoot-to-kill orders came first.

As the streets of New Orleans split open, the impulse of those with no ownership in the social project was not to fortify community life. Law—far less about doing justice than keeping order —is of little relevance to those who already consider themselves outside. And lawlessness runs closer to the surface of New Orleans than many other major cities. There were 53.1 murders per 100,000 residents in 2002, compared to 7.3 in New York City. One in three black male residents has served time. Robbery reports are over three times the national average. And South American drug runners have long considered the Big Easy a friendly port. Last year, as an experiment, researchers asked police to fire 700 blank rounds into a local neighborhood. No one called to report the shots: the street writes its own law, and like so much other filth, Katrina swept that current into public view.

Not all who cleared store shelves held the law in equal contempt. New Orleans’s bottled-water burglars—excused certainly by ethics and likely by law since saving life is a moral trump—gain ready pardon: one doubts that on any other Tuesday they would have held up Winn Dixie. Indeed, allowing the defensible trespass—the parent taking medicine or the starving man stealing food—pledges no allegiance to anarchy. Benevolence toward the weak affirms civilization rather than undermining it. But the looters smashing windows for sport foreshadow a grim future.

Long before the storm struck, liberals—and conservatives sampling urban outreach—sent a generously funded message to the black community: years of oppression had left them too incapacitated to care for themselves. Because they can’t be expected to play by society’s rules, government would fund their housing and feed their children, but to keep the spigot open, they would need to remain alternatively listless and enraged. The thousands crowding the Convention Center brought that history with them. The mayor himself—who retreated to Baton Rouge at first opportunity—whined over the airwaves about the absence of federal aid instead of wondering whether he might have some responsibility to clear bloated bodies from his city’s streets.

If there is some stunted course whereby those never weaned from state assistance remain infants who can’t summon a way to remove themselves from a red zone, more fearsome are those who move into an extended adolescence, rebelling against all social constraint. That was the regression on display—and a dread prospect for a country with a growing population of outstretched hands.

Yet we will likely respond as we ought not. A naturally charitable nation will be tempted to read Katrina’s aftermath as a telegraph to spend more to rescue not New Orleans—which will receive near limitless aid—but American blacks for whom the refugees became emblematic. We may even excuse those who pillaged the drowning city: deprivation breeds a justified drive to hoard.

It is a kind sort of disdain—and cruel. After the riots that overtook New York City during the power failure of 1977, Midge Decter wrote in Commentary, “However hurtful and humiliating it must have been for a grown man to suffer being called ‘boy,’ surely nothing can suck the marrow from the bones faster or more thoroughly than calling a bad boy blameless.”

Rather than signing blank checks, the endgame should contend with a hard truth: white looters didn’t vandalize their neighbors’ homes or empty suburban shopping malls. Writing in his New York Times column, Nicholas Kristoff observed, “I covered the 1995 earthquake that leveled much of Kobe, Japan, killing 5,500, and for days I searched there for any sign of criminal behavior. Finally I found a resident who had seen three men steal food. I asked him whether he was embarrassed that Japanese would engage in such thuggery. ‘No, you misunderstand,’ he said firmly. ‘These looters weren’t Japanese. They were foreigners.’” Kristoff comes to the predictable liberal conclusion that New Orleans’s looters reacted as they did because Republicans “systematically cut people out of the social fabric by redistributing wealth from the most vulnerable Americans to the most affluent.”

He is half right. Poor blacks are cut out of the social fabric. But not because more prosperous Americans are taking anything from them but initiative and self-respect. Lawlessness didn’t rule because the looters had spent lifetimes deprived of DVD players. They were out to get something for nothing—an ethic bred by years of guilty generosity prefaced on the assumption that the standard rules of social advancement don’t venture into the ghetto.

When Japan dusted off, the foreigners in Kobe probably went home, taking their disregard for the system with them. New Orleans is not so lucky. Those who finished Katrina’s ugly business were already home.