Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Disasters and disorder

Haiti could be a pretty lawless place at the best of times. The aftermath of the earthquake is not the best of times. At first it seemed survivors were helping themselves to food and water wherever they could find them, and you couldn’t blame them.

Now, though, looting has become much more widespread with organised criminal gangs beginning to take charge. Following the quake, an estimated 4,500 prisoners escaped from the country’s main gaol – among them drug barons and gang bosses.

Disorder, of course, is not unusual after a major disaster. During the Sicily earthquake of 1908 (see my blog of January 16), the walls of Messina prison collapsed and those inmates who were not killed or injured just walked out. Normally law-abiding folk grabbed what they needed to survive wherever they could, but others pillaged shops and warehouses or rifled corpses, while two men were shot dead trying to rob a bank.

After the Lisbon quake of 1755, the authorities hanged thirty looters in prominent places around the city. And following America’s Johnstown flood of 1885, a number of “marauders” were summarily executed, because “the people in the solemn earnestness of their work of succour and rescue [had] not the patience to wait the tedious process of law.”

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