Did you know that a monster crocodile was fished out of the New Orleans floodwaters? Had you realized that sharks were swimming through the submerged streets of the Lower Ninth Ward? Did you see the photographs of Katrina, the ones showing the hurricane menacing New Orleans like a Wizard of Oz cartoon twister? In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, all of those rumors were present on the Internet in one form or another. I personally received the crocodile photograph — an authentic picture, apparently, taken in Congo some years ago.
Yet although all of these rumors were in the air — or in the cyber-air, to be more precise — none of them took hold. Few people were worried about monster crocodiles or sharks. The fake photographs of Katrina looking like the thing that blew Dorothy out of Kansas somehow never made it onto the evening news. Nevertheless, many did believe the other rumors: the babies being raped, the rat-gnawed corpses floating in the streets, the police officers being shot point-blank in the head, or the snipers firing at helicopters. These reports surfaced not only in mass e-mails but also on talk shows and in the press around the world. And now it seems that they were no more real than the man-eating sharks. Although investigations by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the New Orleans police and the National Guard have turned up a few bad incidents, none of the more grotesque stories of the horrors at the convention center or the Superdome can be substantiated.
Where did they come from? For once, it’s really not possible to blame “the media,” although naturally many have. For once, the sociologists — and there’s a whole flock of them who study rumors — have something interesting to add. They point out that the main influence on whether people believe rumors is the reliability of the sources — in this case, senior New Orleans officials. Some of the stories of infant rape came from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. The tales of armed gangs of thugs outgunning the police in the convention center came from the New Orleans police chief, Edwin Compass. More important, both told these stories on television, to Oprah Winfrey — possibly the most trusted woman in the nation.
But there was more. In fact, New Orleans post-Katrina was a textbook example — or perhaps I should say the perfect storm — of the conditions that rumors require to flourish. A lack of good communications is always a precondition for phony stories, and the telephones in New Orleans were down. A few true examples of bad behavior, inevitably embellished in the retelling, always help too — and according to the Times Picayune, one of the four bodies (not 200, as rumored) recovered from the convention center might really have had stab wounds. Gunshots really were heard. As National Guard soldiers have confirmed, conditions in the convention center really were crowded and primitive, infants and old people really were starving and dehydrating in the heat, and help really was shockingly slow.
But in the end, the fact that so many people believed, as Nagin put it, that the crowds had degenerated into an “almost animalistic state” must have had deeper roots. For the rumor sociologists also tell us that the most deeply believed rumors are always the ones that express some profound public anxiety. Some think that anxiety had to do with race: As I am not the first to note, few would have believed that 25,000 white, middle-class suburbanites had reverted to an “almost animalistic state” within a few days. But then, I’m not sure that 25,000 black middle-class suburbanites would have inspired such stories either, and certainly black officials such as Nagin and Compass wouldn’t have repeated them.
What I’m guessing the Katrina rumors revealed was not precisely racism but a much deeper fear of the poor, even of poverty itself. What I’m guessing they revealed is our imaginary picture of what life would be like without the civilizing elements and the social markings to which we’re accustomed: our houses, our cars, our clothes, our possessions, our reputations, our authority. If all that was gone, who knows how our next-door neighbors would behave, how we would behave. Maybe the people across the street would turn out to be thieves. Maybe the people who live across the city, in the neighborhood we never visit, would turn out to be murderers.
Or maybe not — but we don’t know, which is why we imagine murder and rape. Perhaps it’s not so odd that the mayor and the police chief immediately assumed the worst about their own city. Monster crocodiles, in the end, are a lot less threatening than life without possessions, without status, without law.