As a persistent watcher of the human condition – not to mention human foibles – hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters always catch my attention. Not just because of the destruction and misery involved. But because of the opportunistic criminal element you’ll always find hanging around such events.

Each of these calamities imprints its own tragic effects on the affected. Loss of life, property and, in come cases both, always top the news in their aftermath. There’s a cycle of being stunned, the grief, anger and the resilience that is certain as sunrise. People will eventually begin to rebuild. Or they’ll occasionally move away.

But my interest is nearly always piqued by how long before the looting starts. And it always does. There’s an element in our society – as a whole and in each little community – that will wait just so long before swooping in – buzzard-like – to look for the valuables among the piles of wreckage. And to take whatever treasures are found.

What this speaks to is the tendency in all of us to sometimes go about our business as if there were no laws or moral impediments affecting our lives. Even good people – God-fearing people – seem to have moments when they engage in activity that is forbidden or illegal.

One I see every day as I cruise about our little community – every day – is people talking on handheld cell phones while driving. In Oregon, that’s an offense for which you can be stopped and cited. The fine is usually $100 or so. The fine ought to be for any cell phone use while driving. Period! But it’s not. Yet.

I’ve watched perfectly respectable people slip a small item inside a larger one before going to the checkout stand at the store. I’ve seen people take two or three newspapers from an unattended rack instead of just the one they paid for. I’ve seen people switch tags on new clothing so their purchase is cheaper. Little things. Petty things. An action they would punish their children for. But, at the moment, it was OK for them.

Maybe we visit a friend and park on the wrong side of the street, heading the wrong way into traffic. Against the law. Maybe we park in a handicapped space because we won’t be long; change lanes while driving but don’t signal; turn a corner into the far lane; drive 45 mph in a 30 mph zone. All illegal. All can draw tickets and fines. We do ‘em anyway.

Comes now a new “it’s-OK-everybody-does-it” crime for an otherwise honest citizenry. People are stealing coupons from newspapers in the rack or lying in someone’s driveway. Coupons for everything and by the hundreds. In some of the major papers, this can run from $300 to over $1 thousand of value. Just for the Sunday edition.

The circulation director for the Idaho Statesman in Boise, Idaho, staked out a newspaper rack and watched a woman go through every Sunday paper in it, taking coupons out of all. Her excuse: “People just throw them away.” In other words: “I’m helping to avoid waste and more junk in the landfill.”

A woman who runs a legitimate coupon service told the same newspaper she has watched people driving through neighborhoods, taking editions from driveways. She said people have complained they bought a paper at a rack and found someone had stolen the coupons from all of ‘em.

So, when the mood hits, moral teachings, proper upbringing and a knowledge of right and wrong aside, good people – God-fearing people – will become scoff laws.

I’m not medically qualified to have some sort of comprehensive theory for all of this. But it does seem to speak to a criminal tendency in all of us that creeps out from time to time. We may never steal a TV set after a tornado or loot a furniture store we find unlocked. I seriously doubt many people get up in the morning with the thought that they will try to bend the laws a bit before sundown just to see what they can get away with.

But the tendency to put our own desires above the law is a common trait exhibited in many ways. Most of us effectively suppress it. Most of the time. If we think of what we’re doing at all when we cut a moral corner, we’ll probably rationalize it with “Well, everybody does it.”

So next time there’s a national disaster, note how long before the National Guard is brought in to stop looting. Next time you buy a newspaper from a rack and the coupons are gone, remember someone probably as honest as you got there before you put in your money.

And when the cell phone rings while you’re driving in Oregon some time, well, do what you think is right. Maybe not the same as legal. But who’ll know?

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