EDITORIAL: Nine missed meals is all it takes

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Having been spared the worst of two catastrophic storms, we are sure that almost every single Antiguan has pondered what would have happened if Irma or Maria had trampled through our homes? If you are like us, you would have wondered about your response in the face of devastation and hopelessness? If you are a person with a good heart, as most of us are, you would want to believe that you would do what is right – help your neighbour, help your community and peacefully co-existed with the goal of mutual survival.
The problem is that we can only imagine, and until you are in that position, you do not know what you would do. In the aftermath of Irma and Maria, we have heard of, and seen great acts of, caring and kindness. But we have also heard of desperate people doing desperate things. The latter has invoked a varied response, both from citizens and from law enforcement. The widely-circulated video of looting in St. Martin was met with a great deal of horror, and the backlash was mainly along the lines of “deh need to deal wid dem people.”
Of course, there were a few that were sympathetic and attempted to distinguish looting after a crisis versus greedily stealing for profit, but they were in the minority. Maybe they had experienced devastation and helplessness and could relate. In any case, there was little sympathy by the public at large.
Now that word from the hardest hit during the storms begins to spread, we see a similar set of characteristics emerging during the aftermath. Looting is a common thread, but crime overall has increased in these devastated countries with many on the ground using the description “rampant.”
To get a better understanding of how our generally peaceful, law-abiding brothers and sisters could so quickly transform into mobs of lawlessness, we need only examine the concept of “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy,” which was said by writer Alfred Henry Lewis in Cosmopolitan magazine way back in March 1906. He may not be the originator of the concept, but he certainly has helped bring the concept to the public.
The concept was cited in print as early as 1896 with this quotation: “It is well for us to recollect that even in our own law-abiding, not to say virtuous cases, the only barrier between us and anarchy is the last nine meals we’ve had.” The point being made is that hungry people are desperate people who will do anything to survive – topple a government if they have to.
            Sadly, there are many hungry people in the aftermath of Irma and now Maria, and that hunger will direct their actions. Unlike other things that we require for survival, food (to include water) is the one thing that cannot be postponed. In our tropical weather, we can survive on very little if we have food. Without fuel to propel our means of transportation, we can bicycle or walk to our destination – barefoot if necessary – for as long as it takes. We can shelter and keep dry in the most rudimentary of accommodations for months if that is what it takes to survive. But we can do none of that without the sustenance of food and the hope that it delivers.
Faced with a lack of food, we would do anything to ensure our survival and the survival of those in our care. It has been suggested that “after only nine missed meals, it’s not unlikely that we’d panic and be prepared to commit a crime to acquire food. If we were to see our neighbour with a loaf of bread, and we owned a gun, we might well say, ‘I’m sorry, you’re a good neighbour and we’ve been friends for years, but my children haven’t eaten today – I have to have that bread – even if I have to shoot you.’” (Nine Meals from Anarchy by Jeff Thomas)
The lack of food creates fear and hopelessness, and that is when human nature’s ‘survival by any means necessary’ kicks in. And this is why we need to alleviate those fears as quickly as possible. We need to reach those people that have already missed too many meals. At this point, food, communication and medicine are what is needed. Those commodities will provide hope and calm the lawless mobs that are seeking to survive.  
Think of being crashed on a desert island. If the plane’s radio worked and food, water and medicine were being delivered, you would have hope. You would find shelter knowing that your situation is temporary, but you would very likely wait it out quite peacefully.
We are not seeking to pardon the lawless but rather to provide an understanding. In his famous song, “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry),” Bob Marley touched on the anger provoked by hunger as he spoke of the social and economic injustices of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’  As is the genius of Brother Bob, he summed it up with one line in his lyrics: “A hungry mob is a angry mob.” The situation is different but in some ways the same. Right now, we have hungry, angry persons and mobs that are seeking to survive in places like Dominica, Anguilla, St. Martin and elsewhere. What we need to do to simmer the volatile situation is offer some understanding, some food and deliver some hope.
We invite you to visit www.antiguaobserver.com and give us your feedback on our opinions.

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