Was Katrina Looting Justified?

This is a partial transcript from "Hannity & Colmes," September 6, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

ALAN COLMES, CO-HOST:Gulf Coast cities battered by Hurricane Katrina suffered another blow when looters began to ravage businesses and homes in devastated areas.

Joining us now, the author of "What if George Bush Were a Black Man?", Professor Boyce Watkins.

Professor, let's talk about this issue of looting. Is it looting? Or is there a difference? If you're going to go and take water or food to feed your family, I see that very differently than taking a plasma television. Do you see those are two very different things?

DR. BOYCE WATKINS, AUTHOR AND PROFESSOR: Well, they're very different. But I want to ask you, have you ever really been to New Orleans and really seen the poverty that people live under? New Orleans resets the definition of what it means to be poor. I went to about 25 different cities this year, promoting college attendance for inner city students. And New Orleans led the nation in terms of being the worst educational system in...

COLMES: I understand. I don't want to get off track here. I want to talk about the issue of going and taking things in a tragedy like the one we're seeing on our screens right now.

Are you saying — and I think it's all right to go take water or food to feed your family when there's anarchy. But what about taking televisions? What about taking things that you can't even plug them in. Is that the same thing?

WATKINS: Well, if you define looting as going into someone else's turf and taking something that doesn't belong to you, you can argue that we're looting in Iraq right now.

COLMES: You're not answering my question about is it OK to take a plasma television?

WATKINS: What I'm saying is that you can't point the finger at these people that you've been calling looters and all these other things.

COLMES: Why don't you answer me? I'm asking you about, is it OK to take electronic equipment at a time when what we're seeing now is going on?

WATKINS: I'm answering your question, and what I'm saying is that when you are struggling to help your family, whether it's to get whatever they need or whatever the case may be, the fact is that the line between legality and morality suddenly changes.

COLMES: I'm talking about the line between necessities and staples and luxury items.

WATKINS: Luxury items? You know what? I think that if you're going to focus on the problems of society, you want to focus on the big looters. If you're not going to focus on the big looters, then I don't see any point in picking on and kicking around the poor and downtrodden.

I mean, this city was left in a state of emergency with no federal support whatsoever. Nobody came in to protect these people. And you're worried about shooting the looters before you're worried about feeding the looters?

And so maybe if you loot on a full stomach, maybe that's a problem. But the reality is that there are lots of things going on in America. And...

SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST: Boyce, I want to ask you a question here. There was an AP article that quoted a guy who said, "It's an opportunity to get back at society," meaning the looting. Do you agree with that?

WATKINS: Yes, absolutely. You have a lot of people that are very frustrated. And the thing is that you have them in poverty, and they really don't have a way out.

HANNITY: So what you're saying is the way out is to steal property that's not their own, luxury items that they didn't work for. You are morally justifying stealing, aren't you?

WATKINS: I'm not morally justifying it.

HANNITY: Yes, you are. You're excusing it.

WATKINS: What what I'm morally justifying is that when you put a man with a family in a cage that he can't get out of, the fact is that he did have to make a decision. Do I continue to suffer and let the people I love suffer?

HANNITY: And Boyce, — like Alan, I'm not talking about food. I'm not talking about water. I'm talking about plasma televisions. I'm talking about, you know, 40 pairs of jeans. I'm talking about stealing.

And you, as a leader, are basically saying to people, "I understand why you do it. You're justified because of your economic income level."

And I'm saying as a leader...

WATKINS: That is wrong. That is wrong.

HANNITY: Wait a minute. Do you not defend the stealing of television sets?

WATKINS: I am not saying that every looter is justified. I think that we should have prisons and some people...

HANNITY: If somebody steals a plasma television in New Orleans in this tragedy, is that stealing?

WATKINS: Yes, it's stealing. What do you think?

HANNITY: Is it justified in any way? Can you justify it in any way?

WATKINS: Stealing a plasma TV, that might be hard to explain in the court of law.

HANNITY: May be hard to explain in a court. I'm asking morally, sir. I'm asking morally.

WATKINS: When you're talking about morality and legality, remember in this situation, they are not always one and the same.

HANNITY: You know what you're doing though? You know what you're doing, Boyce? Let me explain something about what you're doing. You are justifying. Here, we had a human tragedy. Here we had three tragedies in one, and we had this looting and this crime and this stealing, this immorality.

And you come on and say, "Well, it may be justified to steal a TV, maybe not. I don't know."

It is clear you ought to say it's morally reprehensible. It's wrong, and it led to chaos where people got hurt. And you don't have the moral courage to do that.

WATKINS: No, no, no, no, no, no. What led to chaos and people being hurt is the federal government dragging its...

HANNITY: We're not talking about that. We're going to have plenty of time for that. We're talking tonight about looting and...

WATKINS: You need to talk about the issues. The fact is that you're choosing one segment of society to kick around. You've got looters with Enron. You've got looters in Iraq. Focus on that. Talk about that.

HANNITY: In this case, we have three problems. We had a hurricane. We had the levees break, and then we had mayhem and looting and stealing, which contributed greatly — because here's what happened: Resources that otherwise would have been used to save lives or rescue people were diverted to stop the chaos and the looting that was widespread.

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