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Lawlessness in New Orleans

The images probably create a more jarring juxtaposition than reality would suggest. For months now, scenes of lawless people in Iraq have filled television screens — people who use explosives to kill indiscriminately and who seem beyond the reach of the law.

Now, suddenly, the scenes of lawlessness are coming from American soil, with bands of gangsters roaming what's left of New Orleans, stealing indiscriminately and using force to get their way, while the law stands by helplessly.

There are myriad reasons why the comparison is out of context. In Iraq, terrorists are fighting for a cause grounded in their perverted interpretations of Islam. Their own government is as uncertain as a newborn chick, and the occupying force of coalition soldiers is fighting against both stubborn ideology and a local history that includes decades of tyrannical rule.

New Orleans, on the other hand, still is part of the United States. The looters there are merely opportunists taking advantage of a temporary vacuum of authority.

But in many ways, that makes the scenes from New Orleans all the more frightening. And it raises questions that the Bush administration and the governor of Louisiana need to answer.

Looting is not a recent invention. In fact, it is a normal, predictable part of any large natural disaster. Following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, looters were such a problem that extra police officers were brought in from points East. Some of the healthier refugees in the city were grabbing far more than their share of relief supplies that finally found their way in, while the nation wondered how people could be so depraved in the face of human suffering.

No, the surprise isn't that New Orleans has looters, it is that state and local governments did nothing to anticipate or discourage them. Unlike an earthquake, hurricanes are somewhat predictable. In this case, authorities knew about Katrina's predicted path far enough in advance to suggest that people evacuate the city before it hit. Why then did the governor not call in the available National Guard troops — those not currently deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan — to beef up the presence of law enforcers on the streets? And why didn't Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and the president himself organize a military presence sooner? Surely, the governor and the president could have worked together to find a way to keep the peace, and to keep Americans from worrying whether they all might be left helpless some day in the wake of a disaster.

A large presence of armed officers might not have stopped all incidents of looting, but it surely would have been a deterrent capable of keeping steady streams of people from brazenly walking out of stores in front of police with their arms loaded with stolen merchandise.

Homeland security clearly has to mean more than just fighting foreign terrorists. It has to be capable of anticipating and responding to all sorts of catastrophes that threaten the peace.