Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Keep It Rural, an email newsletter from the Deesmealz. Like what you see? Join the mailing list for more rural news, thoughts, and analysis in your inbox each week.

This edition of Keep It Rural has a little bit of a different tenor. The news is especially heavy right now, and this Tuesday before Thanksgiving we're writing about humanity in the face of disaster. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.

It’s tempting to pity people facing disaster. It’s especially tempting when you sit outside that disaster, checking in periodically on the news when it’s convenient to you before returning to your own life with all its annoyances and delights.

Many of us can only guess at what we would do if the walls started shaking, the smoke alarms went off, and life as we knew it came crashing down. Some will argue that this chaos brings out the worst in people, that left to their own devices people will riot, loot, and kill in the name of survival, or just in the name of chaos.

Scholars like Thomas Hobbes argued that without a strong authority, humans would descend into chaos, living a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This altogether pessimistic view of human nature has shaped Western society today, where “law and order” is looked at as the only way to keep away the chaos. Threat of punishment is supposed to motivate people to live without causing any trouble.

Of course, living in a highly policed society doesn’t really decrease the chaos – if it did, crime rates would be practically nonexistent in the United States, which has the sixth highest incarceration rate in the world (a rate disproportionately felt by Black Americans). Jails in small and rural counties drive these numbers, according to a 2017 report from the nonprofit research group Vera Institute of Justice. The report said this is because efforts to curb mass incarceration in the U.S. have largely been isolated to bigger cities.

This carceral strategy to curb chaos often does just the opposite, especially during disaster. During Hurricane Katrina, survivors were viewed as “menaces and monsters,” wrote Rebecca Solnit in her 2009 book “A Paradise Built in Hell,” thanks to the media’s biased coverage of the post-storm conditions inside New Orleans and outside of it (the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina in rural Louisiana and Mississippi was largely ignored by mainstream media).

Hysteria over looting and vandalism led the New Orleans Police Department to, instead of helping survivors get access to supplies and medical care, use violence to protect property over lives. Several shooting incidents by police on unarmed New Orleans residents occurred in the days after the hurricane, the most infamous being the Danziger Bridge shooting in which police officers shot and killed two unarmed civilians and severely injured four others. All six people targeted were Black Americans who had been walking to the grocery store.

The Hobbesian philosophy that people living outside authoritative structures are dangerous is in itself a dangerous belief because it can lead to deadly reactions from supposed leaders who assume the worst of people, like what was seen during Hurricane Katrina.

It’s hard to know how people will react in a disaster, but there are plenty of examples of people supporting one another during the chaos because it’s often the most effective way to rebuild a community. After tornadoes hit rural Mississippi earlier this year, locals rushed to support community members who had lost their homes or their livelihoods. When Eastern Kentucky faced deadly flooding in 2022, mutual aid groups popped up all over the region to bring food, water, and companionship to people who had lost everything. After Paradise, California, was destroyed by the Camp Fire in 2018, survivors helped other survivors process the trauma and loss through peer support groups, some of which still exist today.

Disaster does not beget depravity. Neither does war.

Right now, another disaster of massive scale is unraveling, but this time it’s completely man-made. More than 40 days have passed since Israel began attacking Gaza, a tiny strip of land bordering the Mediterranean Sea that makes up one of two Palestinian territories. Two million people are stuffed inside 141 square miles, an area about double the size of Washington, D.C. Unequivocally the opposite of a rural area, Gaza is as dense as it is because of a blockade that was built around its perimeter by Israel and Egypt after the militant resistance group Hamas took governance over Gaza 16 years ago.

This blockade has created what’s been aptly-coined an “open-air prison” where Gazans are essentially stuck within its borders with access to only the bare necessities, supplied by Israel. At least that was the case up until just over a month ago when Israel cut off all supplies to Gaza after Hamas attacked southern and central Israel on October 7, killing approximately 1,200 people.

In retaliation, Israel has bombarded Gaza with strikes more than tenfold the amount seen on October 7, killing an estimated 13,300 people, as of November 21. According to estimates from Palestinian officials, 5,500 children have died since the bombing started. Gaza’s hospitals have been a major target of Israel’s bombing, a move deemed “totally unacceptable” by the World Health Organization.

From the Western eye, one might assume these conditions would produce Hobbes’ “every man for himself” depraved survival response, but from the limited information coming out of Gaza, the response has been just the opposite. Gazans are forced to care for one another, especially as their healthcare services are systematically wiped away by Israel.

Palestine is prey to a long history of demonization by Western media. The United States remains in close economic partnership with Israel, a state it’s supported since its creation in 1948. Mainstream U.S. media coverage of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza has been hesitant to condemn the violence, even though the power between the two is so imbalanced.

As Lebanese writer Fatima Bahja wrote for the non-profit news publication The Objective, “If you were to read about the Gaza crisis now in outlets as prominent as The New York Times or Washington Post, you might assume that this is a conflict between two military forces, and not in fact, an attack by one of the region’s most powerful military forces on a people who are essentially trapped, who are stateless, who have no freedom of movement or an army to protect them.”

Like the misreporting of human behavior in disasters like Hurricane Katrina, denying the horrors that Palestinians are facing in an attempt at objective journalism creates its own disaster. This “both-sides-ism” is happening despite the fact that the majority of Americans support a ceasefire, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll.

It’s tempting to pity people facing disaster, but pity without fair representation can be a form of disenfranchisement in its own right. Just like anyone who’s faced disaster and had their humanity erased in the process, Palestinians deserve their humanity to be recognized as they endure this man-made disaster, one that could and should end now. 

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.