Which best describes Port-au-Prince? A) A hotbed of looting, machete-wielding gangs and violence.
“Downtown Port-au-Prince now feels like a war zone. Gangs with machetes rule the streets here.” – CBS News 1/14/2010
“Hundreds of people desperate for food and supplies swarmed downtown Haiti yesterday, climbing atop piles of broken rubble and shards of glass to get to canned goods, powdered milk, and batteries buried underneath. On the main boulevard, the Grand Rue, their desperation flared into violence at times as teenage boys and men scuffled over goods, and some sparred with sticks. Police fired warning shots into the air but were powerless to halt them.” – Boston Globe, 1/19/2010
“On Tuesday, the White House press office emailed out the YouTube clip below with a subject line, ‘AMAZING VIDEO: Crowd starts chanting USA, USA during L.A. County USAR rescue.’” – Huffington Post 1/19/2010
C) Full of relatively calm people trying to get by amidst overwhelming destruction.
“The mood managed to stay mostly calm, as residents carried leather-bound Bibles to pray outside their ruined churches.” – New York Times 1/18/2010
“One saving grace is that in spite of reports of violence and outbreaks of looting, the overriding atmosphere across the capital is of patient resignation rather than a society on the brink of collapsing into anarchy. – Financial Times, 1/19/2010
D) ALL or NONE of the above.
This is not to diminish the extent of the devastation in Port-au-Prince, the poor state of governance and infrastructure even before the quake, or the degree to which many survivors must be thirsty, hungry, tired, weak and in shock. But I wonder if some media coverage of the earthquake’s aftermath leads to a distorted picture of Haitians as either crazed and violent on one hand, or completely helpless and awaiting our rescue on the other.
Earlier this week on his blog, Chris Blattman asked whether robbery was as widespread as some news reports and photographs seemed to imply. This perception mattered, he said, because “an aid and security policy designed for thieving, ungovernable, progress-resistant Haitians looks very different from one that views civil society institutions as shaken but fundamentally strong.”
How would an overblown perception of violence and insecurity in Port-au-Prince affect the delivery of disaster-relief aid?