[News] Covering Haiti - When the Media Is the Disaster
news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jan 21 11:35:31 EST 2010
When the Media Is the Disaster
By <http://www.tomdispatch.com/authors/rebeccasolnit>Rebecca Solnit
Soon after almost every disaster the crimes
begin: ruthless, selfish, indifferent to human
suffering, and generating far more suffering. The
perpetrators go unpunished and live to commit
further crimes against humanity. They care less
for human life than for property. They act without regard for consequences.
Im talking, of course, about those members of
the mass media whose misrepresentation of what
goes on in disaster often abets and justifies a
second wave of disaster. Im talking about the
treatment of sufferers as criminals, both on the
ground and in the news, and the endorsement of a
shift of resources from rescue to property
patrol. They still have blood on their hands from
Hurricane Katrina, and they are staining themselves anew in Haiti.
Within days of the Haitian earthquake, for
example, the Los Angeles Times ran
series of photographs with captions that kept
deploying the word looting. One was of a man
lying face down on the ground with this caption:
A Haitian police officer ties up a suspected
looter who was carrying a bag of evaporated
milk. The mans sweaty face looks up at the camera, beseeching, anguished.
Another photo was labeled: Looting continued in
Haiti on the third day after the earthquake,
although there were more police in downtown
Port-au-Prince. It showed a somber crowd
wandering amid shattered piles of concrete in a
landscape where, visibly, there could be little worth taking anyway.
A third image was captioned: A looter makes off
with rolls of fabric from an earthquake-wrecked
store. Yet another: The body of a police
officer lies in a Port-au-Prince street. He was
accidentally shot by fellow police who mistook him for a looter.
People were then still trapped alive in the
rubble. A translator for Australian TV
out a toddler whod survived 68 hours without
food or water, orphaned but claimed by an uncle
who had lost his pregnant wife. Others were
hideously wounded and awaiting medical attention
that wasnt arriving. Hundreds of thousands,
maybe millions, needed, and still need, water,
food, shelter, and first aid. The media in
disaster bifurcates. Some step out of their usual
objective roles to respond with kindness and
practical aid. Others bring out the arsenal of
clichés and pernicious myths and begin to assault the survivors all over again.
The looter in the first photo might well have
been taking that milk to starving children and
babies, but for the news media that wasnt the
most urgent problem. The looter stooped under
the weight of two big bolts of fabric might well
have been bringing it to now homeless people
trying to shelter from a fierce tropical sun under improvised tents.
The pictures do convey desperation, but they
dont convey crime. Except perhaps for that
shooting of a fellow police officer -- his
colleagues were so focused on property that they
were reckless when it came to human life, and a
man died for no good reason in a landscape already saturated with death.
In recent days, there have been scattered
accounts of confrontations involving weapons, and
these may be a different matter. But the man
with the powdered milk? Is he really a criminal?
There may be more to know, but with what Ive seen Im not convinced.
What Would You Do?
Imagine, reader, that your city is shattered by a
disaster. Your home no longer exists, and you
spent what cash was in your pockets days ago.
Your credit cards are meaningless because there
is no longer any power to run credit-card
charges. Actually, there are no longer any
storekeepers, any banks, any commerce, or much of
anything to buy. The economy has ceased to exist.
By day three, youre pretty hungry and the water
you grabbed on your way out of your house is
gone. The thirst is far worse than the hunger.
You can go for many days without food, but not
water. And in the improvised encampment you
settle in, there is an old man near you who seems
on the edge of death. He no longer responds when
you try to reassure him that this ordeal will
surely end. Toddlers are now crying constantly,
and their mothers infinitely stressed and distressed.
So you go out to see if any relief organization
has finally arrived to distribute anything, only
to realize that there are a million others like
you stranded with nothing, and there isnt likely
to be anywhere near enough aid anytime soon. The
guy with the corner store has already given away
all his goods to the neighbors. That supplys
long gone by now. No wonder, when you see the
chain pharmacy with the shattered windows or the
supermarket, you dont think twice before
grabbing a box of PowerBars and a few gallons of
water that might keep you alive and help you save a few lives as well.
The old man might not die, the babies might stop
their squalling, and the mothers might lose that
look on their faces. Other people are calmly
wandering in and helping themselves, too. Maybe
theyre people like you, and that gallon of milk
the fellow near you has taken is going to spoil
soon anyway. You havent shoplifted since you
were 14, and you have plenty of money to your
name. But it doesnt mean anything now.
If you grab that stuff are you a criminal? Should
you end up lying in the dirt on your stomach with
a cop tying your hands behind your back? Should
you end up labeled a looter in the international
media? Should you be shot down in the street,
since the overreaction in disaster, almost any
disaster, often includes the imposition of the
death penalty without benefit of trial for suspected minor property crimes?
Or are you a rescuer? Is the survival of disaster
victims more important than the preservation of
everyday property relations? Is that chain
pharmacy more vulnerable, more a victim, more in
need of help from the National Guard than you
are, or those crying kids, or the thousands still
trapped in buildings and soon to die?
Its pretty obvious what my answers to these
questions are, but it isnt obvious to the mass
media. And in disaster after disaster, at least
since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, those
in power, those with guns and the force of law
behind them, are too often more concerned for
property than human life. In an emergency, people
can, and do, die from those priorities. Or they
get gunned down for minor thefts or imagined
thefts. The media not only endorses such
outcomes, but regularly, repeatedly, helps
prepare the way for, and then eggs on, such a reaction.
If Words Could Kill
We need to banish the word looting from the
English language. It incites madness and obscures realities.
Loot, the noun and the verb, is a word of Hindi
origin meaning the spoils of war or other goods
seized roughly. As historian Peter Linebaugh
out, At one time loot was the soldier's pay. It
entered the English language as a good deal of
loot from India entered the English economy, both
in soldiers pockets and as imperial seizures.
of interviewing survivors of disasters, and
reading first-hand accounts and sociological
studies from such disasters as the London Blitz
and the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, I dont
believe in looting. Two things go on in
disasters. The great majority of what happens you
could call emergency requisitioning. Someone who
could be you, someone in the kind of desperate
circumstances I outlined above, takes necessary
supplies to sustain human life in the absence of
any alternative. Not only would I not call that
looting, I wouldnt even call that theft.
Necessity is a defense for breaking the law in
the United States and other countries, though
its usually applied more to, say, confiscating
the car keys of a drunk driver than feeding
hungry children. Taking things you dont need is
theft under any circumstances. It is, says the
disaster sociologist Enrico Quarantelli, who has
been studying the subject for more than half a
century, vanishingly rare in most disasters.
Personal gain is the last thing most people are
thinking about in the aftermath of a disaster. In
that phase, the survivors are almost invariably
more altruistic and less attached to their own
property, less concerned with the long-term
questions of acquisition, status, wealth, and
security, than just about anyone not in such
situations imagines possible. (The best accounts
from Haiti of how people with next to nothing
have patiently tried to share the little they
have and support those in even worse shape than
them only emphasize this disaster reality.) Crime
often drops in the wake of a disaster.
The media are another matter. They tend to
arrive obsessed with property (and the headlines
that assaults on property can make). Media
outlets often call everything looting and thereby
incite hostility toward the sufferers as well as
a hysterical overreaction on the part of the
armed authorities. Or sometimes the journalists
on the ground do a good job and the editors back
in their safe offices cook up the crazy photo
captions and the wrongheaded interpretations and emphases.
They also deploy the word panic wrongly. Panic
among ordinary people in crisis is profoundly
uncommon. The media will call a crowd of people
running from certain death a panicking mob, even
though running is the only sensible thing to do.
In Haiti, they continue to report that food is
being withheld from distribution for fear of
stampedes. Do they think Haitians are cattle?
The belief that people in disaster (particularly
poor and nonwhite people) are cattle or animals
or just crazy and untrustworthy regularly
justifies spending far too much energy and far
too many resources on control -- the American
military calls it security -- rather than
relief. A British-accented voiceover on CNN
people sprinting to where supplies are being
dumped from a helicopter a "stampede" and adds
that this delivery risks sparking chaos. The
chaos already exists, and you cant blame it on
these people desperate for food and water. Or you
can, and in doing so help convince your audience
that theyre unworthy and untrustworthy.
Back to looting: of course you can consider
Haitis dire poverty and failed institutions a
long-term disaster that changes the rules of the
game. There might be people who are not only
interested in taking the things they need to
survive in the next few days, but things theyve
never been entitled to own or things they may
need next month. Technically thats theft, but
Im not particularly surprised or distressed by
it; the distressing thing is that even before the
terrible quake they led lives of deprivation and desperation.
In ordinary times, minor theft is often
considered a misdemeanor. No one is harmed.
Unchecked, minor thefts could perhaps lead to an
environment in which there were more thefts and
so forth, and a good argument can be made that,
in such a case, the tide needs to be stemmed. But
its not particularly significant in a landscape
of terrible suffering and mass death.
A number of radio hosts and other media personnel
are still upset that people apparently took TVs
after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August
2005. Since I started thinking about, and
talking to people about, disaster aftermaths Ive
heard a lot about those damned TVs. Now, which
matters more to you, televisions or human life?
People were dying on rooftops and in overheated
attics and freeway overpasses, they were stranded
in all kinds of hideous circumstances on the Gulf
Coast in 2005 when the mainstream media began to
obsess about looting, and the mayor of New
Orleans and the governor of Louisiana made the
decision to focus on protecting property, not human life.
A gang of white men on the other side of the
river from New Orleans got so worked up about
property crimes that they decided to take the law
into their own hands and began shooting. They
seem to have considered all black men criminals
and thieves and
a number of them. Some apparently died; there
were bodies bloating in the September sun far
from the region of the floods; one good man
trying to evacuate the ruined city barely
survived; and the media looked away. It
me months of nagging to even get the story
covered. This vigilante gang claimed to be
protecting property, though its members never
demonstrated that their property was threatened.
They boasted of killing black men. And they
shared values with the mainstream media and the Louisiana powers that be.
Somehow, when the Bush administration
subcontracted emergency services -- like
providing evacuation buses in Hurricane Katrina
-- to cronies who profited even while providing
incompetent, overpriced, and much delayed service
at the moment of greatest urgency, we didnt label that looting.
Or when a lot of wealthy Wall Street brokers
decide to tinker with a basic human need like
. Well, you catch my drift.
Woody Guthrie once sang that some will rob you
with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.
The guys with the six guns (or machetes or
sharpened sticks) make for better photographs,
and the guys with the fountain pens not only
dont end up in jail, they end up in McMansions
with four-car garages and, sometimes, in elected -- or appointed -- office.
Learning to See in Crises
Last Christmas a priest, Father Tim Jones of
York, started a ruckus in Britain when he said in
a sermon that shoplifting by the desperate from
chain stores might be acceptable behavior.
Naturally, there was an uproar. Jones
the Associated Press: The point I'm making is
that when we shut down every socially acceptable
avenue for people in need, then the only avenue
left is the socially unacceptable one.
The response focused almost entirely on why
shoplifting is wrong, but the claim was also
repeatedly made that it doesnt help. In fact,
food helps the hungry, a fact so bald its
bizarre to even have to state it. The means by
which it arrives is a separate matter. The focus
remained on shoplifting, rather than on why there
might be people so desperate in Englands green
and pleasant land that shoplifting might be their
only option, and whether unnecessary human
suffering is itself a crime of sorts.
Right now, the point is that people in Haiti need
food, and for all the publicity, the
international delivery system has, so far, been a
visible dud. Under such circumstances,
into a U.N. food warehouse -- food assumedly
meant for the poor of Haiti in a catastrophic
moment -- might not be violence, or looting,
or law-breaking. It might be logic. It might
be the most effective way of meeting a desperate need.
Why were so many people in Haiti hungry before
the earthquake? Why do we have a planet that
produces enough food for all and a distribution
system that ensures more than a billion of us
dont have a decent share of that bounty? Those
are not questions whose answers should be long delayed.
Even more urgently, we need compassion for the
sufferers in Haiti and media that tell the truth
about them. Id like to propose alternative
captions for those Los Angeles Times photographs
as models for all future disasters:
Lets start with the picture of the policeman
hogtying the figure whose face is so anguished:
Ignoring thousands still trapped in rubble, a
policeman accosts a sufferer who took evaporated
milk. No adequate food distribution exists for Haitis starving millions.
And the guy with the bolt of fabric? As with
every disaster, ordinary people show
extraordinary powers of improvisation, and
fabrics such as these are being used to make sun shelters around Haiti.
For the murdered policeman: Institutional
overzealousness about protecting property leads
to a gratuitous murder, as often happens in
crises. Meanwhile countless people remain trapped beneath crushed buildings.
And the crowd in the rubble labeled looters? How
about: Resourceful survivors salvage the means
of sustaining life from the ruins of their world.
That one might not be totally accurate, but its
likely to be more accurate than the existing
label. And what is absolutely accurate, in Haiti
right now, and on Earth always, is that human
life matters more than property, that the
survivors of a catastrophe deserve our compassion
and our understanding of their plight, and that
we live and die by words and ideas, and it
matters desperately that we get them right.
At the dawn of the millennium, three catastrophes
for the United States: terrorists in New York, a
hurricane in New Orleans, and an earthquake in
San Francisco. Rebecca Solnit lives in San
Francisco with her earthquake kit and is about to
make her seventh trip to New Orleans since
Katrina. Her latest book,
Paradise Built in Hell, is a testament to human
bravery and innovation during disasters.
Copyright 2010 Rebecca Solnit
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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