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Are We All Hobbesians Now?

March 1, 2010

Courtesy AP

The American responses to Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake all had major security components. Associated with these security missions are allegations that America irrationally militarizes disaster relief due to “elite” projection of a “Hobbesian corporate ethic” onto good-natured, cooperative victims and its inherent racist perceptions of non-white behavior. There is a difference between pointing out overstatements of violence and misinformation (the Superdome is a perfect example) and ascribing motive to the US military and law enforcement. There is also, to give Hobbes credit, a difference between a disaster-stricken community and the state of nature. The state of nature is the absence of a “common power” to ensure man’s life against another’s actions, leading to a natural right to act in whatever way necessary to survive. Because men need the same things to survive, violence arises from equality of hopes and ability over scarce resources.

The relative over-reporting of violence in Katrina does not reflect elite evil, it reflects common human fears. Rumors of rape and violence spread within the Superdome and among emergency responders on the ground, they were not pure inventions of elite imaginations. The same thing goes for Haiti, where violence is a real problem. To be fair, property-holders contribute by shooting “looters,” and local law enforcement does abuse its power during disasters (note, however, that while NOPD and Haitian police are involved in unnecessary shootings, US armed forces are usually not). But local authorities are caught up in the same situations as the “common people,” they are hardly “elites” imposing from the top-down.

Evidence for inherent human goodness after disasters is also highly subjective. In Haiti, where government has collapsed along with infrastructure, violence is still a problem. Critics point out that humans cooperate in dire situations, but this often has more to do with perceptions of a shared fate than a desire for utopian liberation from social norms. A common threat can keep men in awe as much as a common power. When a disaster threatens all, cooperation often ensues. There is little use extorting or threatening others on a trapped subway or a city engulfed in flames. Such cooperative impulses begin to fade, as they have in Haiti, when other humans present greater immediate threats than the disaster itself.

This may address the slight at Hobbes, but what of the direct charge against the military? Quite simply, the military is often a useful component to emergency relief because it has all-terrain equipment, communication systems, able bodies, high authority, and often superior cohesiveness than stricken or swamped local agencies. Do governments deploy the military on the basis of racist fears? Haiti was already a dangerous place before the disaster – hence Brazilian-led ¬†MINUSTAH’s armaments. Are the Brazilians also racist imperialists?

Finally, take the example of Chile. There is actual looting of consumer goods, rather than simple food gathering, and even arson. Property-owners are using force, and local law enforcement cannot control the situation. The government has decided to deploy the military in response. Yes, Chile is a country with a history of military rule, but Pinochet’s men tortured President Bachelet. I doubt she yearns for martial law. Removed from the cloudy contexts of American race relations and imperialist tropes, the Chilean earthquake seems to prove that concerns with security and the desirability of military action are rational, if imperfect, responses to natural disasters.

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