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Haiti
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January 18, 2010, 06:37 PM
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Sunday night, the Washington Post headlines:

Security fears mount in lawless post-earthquake Haiti

I must say, though, that this has to be about the fourth day in a row that I`ve read headlines like this insisting that absolute dog-eat-dog carnage is about to break out all over Haiti any moment now.

Presumably, it will, sooner or later, or they wouldn`t keep printing the same headlines, but as far as I can tell from reading the fine print, as of Sunday night, this hadn`t yet gone through the formality of taking place:

There was widespread apprehension that, unless the pace of aid distribution quickens, there could be mass violence as hundreds of thousands of people suddenly lacking food, water and electricity begin to compete for scarce resources.

"We worry," said Laurence Acluche, a Haitian National Police officer. "We are all concerned about food."

There has already been scattered looting in recent days, but so far it has been primarily confined to damaged buildings. Still, Haiti has long lacked a robust security presence, and the earthquake has further eroded what little there had been, meaning violence could quickly escalate once it starts.

It seems like, so far, Haitians have behaved better than the press has expected. Perhaps widespread mourning, people`s appreciation of the seriousness of the situation, the lack of stuff worth stealing, and the threat of lynch law in the streets have salutary effects.

In general, how useful was Haiti`s government even before the earthquake in preventing crime? Or was the threat of vigilante justice by neighbors or vengeance by local gangs more of a deterrent?

This latest story suggests that future mass violence would be not due to the breakdown of law at preventing criminals from discretionary looting, but due to physical competition over the necessities of life.

If you look at really bad discretionary looting, like LA in 1992, that was just a big drunken debauch set off by news on TV and the LAPD then deciding to go on de facto strike and show people who the bad guys really were. By the way, there was almost no looting in East LA in 1992, because well-established Mexican gangs patrolled in the absence of the cops and kept out black and Central American rioters from South Central.

The 2005 New Orleans hurricane was something of a worse case scenario, where there was advanced warning so the more prudent people run away ahead of time, leaving the imprudent behind. Then the hurricane turned out to be less catastrophic than expected, so relieved imprudent people came out to celebrate afterwards, but, then, there was a delayed punch from the levee breaking, and the prudent people continued to stay away for days.

In contrast, an earthquake is instantly sobering. It hits everybody, imprudent or prudent, out of the blue. It does not put you in a mood to party. If it`s a horrific one like in Haiti, it`s depressing because everybody knows somebody who has been killed. Earthquakes make you realize how much you need your neighbors and they need you.