June 07, 2020
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In the worst of times, we see the best of people

I happened to be reading Rebecca Solnit’s new book, “A Paradise Built in Hell” when the earthquake struck Haiti in January. Subtitled “The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster,” Solnit’s discussion of well-known events, ranging from the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 and the Halifax Explosion to Hurricane Katrina, focuses not on the heartbreak of lives lost, but on the adaptability of survivors. We see the mechanisms by which people can sometimes, when faced with almost unimaginable destruction, figure out small ways to improve their chances. The “survivors” we’re talking about are not only those who are rescued, but also those who participate in the rescuing.

Most of the pictures we see are of the most destitute, babies, the severely injured, people who can do nothing. As desperate as Haiti is, the rest of the world must not make a mistake long repeated in history — we must not expect of the victims some sort of unnatural suspended animation. I have heard well-meaning folks comment on “those people” as if each Haitian should just sit quietly and wait … indefinitely. Instead, every Haitian parent who still has the strength will be out trying to find food for his children. You would do the same.

From San Francisco in 1906, there is documentation of survivors feeding each other, creating informal soup kitchens and stores and shelters — that is, until “the authorities” showed up to take over. In New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of people became rescuers, even if only briefly. As in any crisis, there were more “unsung heroes” than history will ever know.

People as a rule do more to protect each other, to feed and shelter and comfort each other when fire and flood come, than they do to profit from each other’s tragedy, but these are not the stories we read in the papers. Let one hooligan break a store window, and the world will see the image hundreds of times.

Solnit’s research leads to the inescapable conclusion that the wrong thing to do, in a disastrous situation where people are rendered very nearly helpless, is to remove the victims’ last meager scraps of self-sufficiency, local control or individual initiative. She and other sociologists have also discovered an interesting reality while studying disasters: Spontaneous mass chaos, large-scale rioting, all of the scary manifestations of “people out of control” occur with far less frequency than we are led to believe.

I have heard Americans commenting on the Haiti situation with expressions such as “Those people will soon be out of control.” Control? Is that really the issue? What of this notion that “those people” — meaning specifically those without homes, or food, or a way out or anything to lose — need to be kept in line because they are otherwise an imminent threat.

Stealing television sets when there is no electricity anyway is looting. Stealing drinking water when there is no other way to get it is something else entirely. Such behavior may not be an ideal to aspire to, but it is more along the lines of “emergency requisitioning” than evidence of dangerous antisocial tendencies. It is, if we’re honest with ourselves, exactly what most of us would do for our own children.

I am not idealizing lawlessness. I mean only to suggest that we, from our position of safety and comfort, ought not immediately expect the worst in our fellow man. The facts do not prove out the “conventional wisdom” that all impoverished disaster victims are either latent criminals or are instantly reduced to the capability of small children. Before we civilians talk about bringing in the armed forces in the interest of rescuing the public from water-stealers, let us make sure such an attitude is needed. There’s no better way to start trouble than to wave guns around and treat innocent people like troublemakers.

Haitians who are not injured or incapacitated are, for the most part, eager to participate in the essential work of relief. Infantilizing a population does nothing to repair damage or render aid. Locals, victims, survivors — whatever you choose to call them — generally want the best for their country, and will help.

Eva Murray of Matinicus Island is a freelance writer and an emergency medical technician.

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