Like many, I have consumed reports of Haiti’s devastation these past few weeks. Like many, I have been saddened by the suffering and loss of life—the stunning vulnerability of an entire nation of people. But I have also found myself disappointed by the media’s depictions of Haiti’s plight. In both subtle and vulgar ways, a continuing theme has emerged in the aftermath of the quake: A determined fascination with the violence that, by some assessments, continues to hinder Haiti’s recovery.
But violence occurs in every situation where need outstrips resources, doesn’t it? We see painful struggle every time demand exceeds supply in life threatening situations. Are our Haitian brothers and sisters so unique in this? Perhaps the story isn't so much that lawlessness and savagery are pervasive in Haiti—though that certainly seems to be the story the media wants to explore—as it is the inability of the relief effort to contain the aftereffects of such a catastrophe. I am not saying that the world has turned a blind eye to Haiti. In fact, the compassion and sacrifice demonstrated by the United States and other countries has been breathtaking. But the international aid does not come without an undercurrent of judgment—or worse—contempt.
Bill O’Reilly rants that “massive corruption is the problem with Haiti” and that if you send money to the island, the Haitian authorities “will most likely steal it!” He says that he gives to Haiti through a reliable friend but doesn’t provide much guidance to his viewers as to how they, too, can find alternative means to donate. Not particularly constructive. Further, he “tut tuts” about looting and thuggery, yet I have seen no images of people stealing flat screen TVs or trashing local businesses—assuming there are standing structures to trash.
Watching the tragedy play out on television, I have seen suffering, yes. I have seen death, certainly. I have seen hungry, injured people struggling to find food and medicine for themselves, for their children. That’s not looting. That’s survival at its most urgent. We celebrate the tenacity of the human spirit when rugby players stranded in the Andes are forced to turn to the carcasses of their fallen brethren for sustenance—and even make a movie about it. So surely we can acknowledge the impulse to push back against the throngs of souls who grab at the same meager bowl of rice that you are fortunate enough to hold in your hands.
I’ve come to expect drivel from Fox TV, but they’re not the only ones playing up the lawless Haitian meme. Time wonders “Will Criminal Gangs Take Control In Haiti’s Chaos?,” while The Daily Beast laments "Haiti's Lawless Streets.” And on and on, the coverage goes, as if it is morally wrong when desperation doesn't simply tip its hat and form a queue.
Violence is indeed an aspect of Haiti’s story, but so are heroism, generosity and hope. I fear the over-emphasis on violence as somehow an anomalous reaction to catastrophe rests on a far too familiar trope: Black as savage, other, incomprehensible. Inhuman. Is this hyperbole? Perhaps. Or perhaps we ought to ask the Idaho church group who thought they could simply leave the island with orphaned (and maybe some not-so-orphaned) children without the appropriate documentation. Or the Brazilian troops who last week trained their rifles on a hungry crowd of displaced Haitians, firing pepper spray into the crowd to keep the peace. Perhaps we should ask the Haitian people who again and again have had to attest to their own humanity.
Thomas A. Reed is an attorney whose expertise includes civil rights, media and communications issues. He resides in Centreville, Va.