Apocalyptic Morality


There has never been a time in history that I can recall that this discussion could be brought up in mixed company until now. With the cloud of apocalyptic disasters always swirling about, there are many people in the parts of the world unaffected that look on with disdain from the vantage point of the computer and television at those who dumpster dive, loot or steal in the aftermath of a terrible disaster.

The question is: After a disaster of epic proportions do morals change? When is it okay to rationalize stealing for the sake of survival? There seems to be this ambiguity of morality in times of disasters.

However, we see in movies and on television people who steal during disasters and many of us really have a tough time understanding the motives for those who loot and in reality there seems to be this “code of ethics” in situations where there is virtually no hope to survive without stealing drugs or food and in some cases appliances.

It would surprise many people that one of the most looted items form stores apart from food is disposable baby diapers. During the September 11th attacks, firefighters would steal bottled water from store shelves in order to clean their eyes.

In most disaster situations, the threat of human revolt and desperation seems to be far more devastating that the disaster itself. While the event of an earthquake, hurricane or flood creates billions of dollars in damage, the toll of human suffering and death leads people to do desperate things – and this includes deciding the morality of stealing. There are also other more serious decisions as to who dies, whether or not you must kill for survival or in the most desperate situation whether it is moral to eat a human being for sustenance.

On October 31st, 1846, the 87 members of the Donner Party realized they were snowed in at a mountain pass and would have to spend the winter high in the Sierra Nevada’s. They had no idea the hunger and the horror awaiting them.

At the time of their February rescue, crews reported seeing hair, skulls and fragments of half-consumed limbs around the fire, and survivors themselves said they’d resorted to cannibalism.

After Hurricane Katrina, there were also horror stories of cannibalism after four days, however the media backed off on these stories. To this day there is still a question of whether or not these stories were part of media sensationalism. However, the horror stories should be a lesson in preparedness and we should also understand that in a disaster that morals change and people change as well. In a disaster your way of life cannot continue in the pampered way that Americans are used to. Remember that after the Katrina disaster looting was widespread, gunshots were fired, tempers flared and fists flew. Homeowners who decided to ride out the hurricane later had some tense encounters with bands of roving thugs.

Now, once again this isn’t conversation that happens all the time but since we are now wondering about a full scale apocalypse perhaps it is time to open up and speak without fear about the issue of the breaking point when you will decide that it is time to throw out what you are used to and climb into a dumpster to find sustenance from an unfinished pizza nestled between those cigarette butts and beer cans.

This really isn’t a requirement for survival if you are prepared; but if you aren’t, then when are desperate people entitled to help themselves? And to what? At what chaotic point between the diapers and the widescreen TV are police officers required to shoot or arrest you?

Though looting starts spontaneously, how quickly it stops appears to depends on how rapid and severe a response it meets. That is the argument for using lethal force decisively. However would you feel better if you knew that police gunned down a group of kids stealing drugs, or would you go easy on kids stealing bread and milk? How are we at allowing for the stealing of computers and appliances during a disaster? Do we say to ourselves that stealing food is okay and appliances are wrong?

Is it far more acceptable to steal from a destroyed department store or from someone carrying groceries to feed their family?

On a legal level, academics who study looting parse it into three separate rungs on a ladder of moral ambiguity.

Stealing food to survive is accepted by most.

Stealing TVs slides into a grey area. Mostly because a starving man could sell a TV for food, but it’s never clear his motives are that pure.

And the third level — rampage and mayhem that is really ethnic or class warfare or a “war of all against all” is universally condemned, even though many say the poor of every country have a right to be angry and ought to be forgiven for showing it during a crisis.

It is also interesting to note that contrary to popular belief the impoverished are the least likely to loot. The rich and middle class find themselves looting in order to maintain a sense of security. The impoverished are used to going without however the rich and middle class find themselves in desperate situations because of the lack of creature comfort and access to those conveniences make it harder to cope and soon even the most content are more likely to resort stealing things like gasoline , clothing and food.

The New York Post is now reporting that looters are ransacking “stores and homes across the city” and that some are posing as utility workers to con victims. People now are complaining that they are being neglected and not looked after by rescue teams.

There are gas shortages and problems with people cutting in line and holding people back at gunpoint. All of these things could be avoided if people are prepared. The alternative seems to be a dangerous one.

Staten Island has been the scene of some of the most heartbreaking storm-related devastation, especially on the South Shore where numerous trapped residents had to be rescued. Hundreds of homes from multimillion-dollar mansions to modest bungalows have been damaged and dozens of streets are impassable due to downed trees and buckled roads.

Those in the more affluent homes are in a panic wondering where the “government” is and why no one is helping them. They are demanding gasoline, clothing and food and there has been no government rescue.

Meanwhile, angry residents pelted utility crews with eggs as they tried to restore power in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The mayor claimed the local power company had “shortchanged” the state’s largest city as it tries to recover from Hurricane Sandy.

United Illuminating workers reported eggs and other objects being thrown at them a day after Mayor Bill Finch said the utility was taking care of wealthy suburbs while his constituents suffered. The unrest caused United Illuminating to pull its workers out until the city agreed to provide police protection.

Meanwhile, amid all of the desperation death, and panic there are discussions of the political nature and already the same type of talk that we heard before with Katrina sickens the soul.

As if on cue, Barack Obama becomes the Consoler-In-Chief. The argument again is over the impact of Global warming and how climate change is the major issue. There are also a number of liberal cynical critics that are pointing out that the storm has generated apocalyptic fantasy rather than facts. There have been numerous e-mails that I have read scolding me on how the conversation is to go and that true service to my audience would consist of the evils of disaster capitalism, the so-called importance of global warming, and how the storm is being used to cull the population and stunt the overall population growth. While these issues are typical ones, the idea of the moral struggle to adjust to such events makes the apocalyptic angle a compelling struggle with what we are told is wrong and what is necessary to survive.

As it has been indicated – no government, God, or anything else will save you from making difficult decisions about your mortality and the lives of those you love. We may all have to face the harsh reality of disaster in our neighborhoods. You either need to be prepared or wait for a government rescue, or a miracle from god to keep you from starving and dying.

So now we are going to still focus on an election. At this point one has to wonder why. Is it simply because the show must go on? Who wants to vote for the fake production that is the campaign while people are dying and starving?

Here too is another moral ambiguity — one where human life is in the balance and yet we still take the time to care about rich men who have unrealistic ambitions preaching hope from the podiums as families are fighting for a chance to survive what to them is akin to the biblical end of their world.