A rising flood tide brings all kinds of terror in its wake, whole populations cast into its swirling eddies, people fighting for their very lives. When the waters subside, it is not surprising that we should witness both the very best and very worst of human nature.

The best is both evident and admirable. In their readiness to give to charity, Americans are the most generous people on earth. Money is pouring in to the Red Cross and other relief organizations. A welling surge of humanitarianism is bringing comfort and relief to hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens who languish bereft in the face of nature's devastating power.

The worst of human nature evoked by such a catastrophe is both evident and hidden, in each instant manifesting the opposite of generosity, namely greed.

Evident is the criminal lawlessness. Hospitals being ransacked. Armed pirates on the prowl. Looters trashing stores. The wanton disregard for human life and property stands as a sobering reminder that, when freed from social constraints and driven by greed the human animal can become both feral and (unlike most other creatures in the animal kingdom) cruel.

Some people, given the opportunity, will steal whatever they can get away with stealing. Encouraged by crowd behavior and an apparent immunity to consequence, others will succumb to greed under the cover of chaos, committing crimes that they wouldn't dream of under ordinary circumstances. Opportunistic crime is not reserved for street thugs, of course. One corporate scandal after another testifies quite eloquently to the wide band in which human greed operates.

The great majority of citizens resist the temptation to steal what isn't theirs. To jump from the videotape to the conclusion that the dike of American virtue has collapsed in minority communities is as callow a judgment as is its ideological counterpart-namely that the only sins that really count are those committed in the corporate boardrooms or the halls of power.

Also, we must not forget that people have been without water, electricity, and sometimes food for almost a week now. Many of these despised looters have lost everything: left homeless, their cars literally flooded in three feet of water, their livelihoods suspended, and little in their bank accounts to fall back on.

Before rushing to blanket judgment, we must be examining our own moral pretensions. The first law of nature is self-protection. I myself would steal bottled water if my children were crying out in thirst and food if they were aching with hunger. Any moral judgment that doesn't place our own sin within its purview is incomplete.

Which leads to the hidden scourge of greed that looms over the horizon of this catastrophe. Over the past four years, the present administration has slashed the public works budgets of places like New Orleans to below subsistence level so that the richest one percent of Americans can continue to enjoy their tax cuts. Moments of crisis are moments of decision and opportunity. When Congress comes back into session, rather than eliminating the estate and dividends taxes and making the high-bracket tax cuts permanent, perhaps this tragedy will prompt a welcome reassessment of priorities.

Nature is devastating enough on its own, without our assistance to compound its impact or increase its threat. When our leaders permit the infrastructures of our great cities to rot and rust, scoff at reports that global warming may lead to an upsurge in hurricanes in future years, and can't even see the rowboats for all the yachts and battleships they are underwriting, then a finger of blame can be fairly pointed. If we have time to point a moral finger right now, it is not only the looters whose greed should rivet our moral attention.

That said, one can't help but be angry at looters and other lawbreakers who show no human sympathy at a time when every soul should be crying out and every heart open to a bereft population, rich and poor alike-seeing our tears in their eyes, extending our compassion and aid, and remembering that, but for the grace of God or the accident of fate, we go there also.

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