The Psychology Behind A Post-9/11 ATM Looting

By Breitkopf, David | American Banker, August 21, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Psychology Behind A Post-9/11 ATM Looting


Breitkopf, David, American Banker


The response to the World Trade Center attack brought out the best in many New Yorkers; one sign of that was a sharp drop in the city's crime rate on and shortly after Sept. 11.

The image of a united city is one reason an alleged ATM fraud by thousands of members of New York's Municipal Credit Union garnered so much national attention.

Many of those arrested in the case were city employees, including health workers, teachers, and housing authority workers. At least one worked for the police department.

Did the disaster change the rules of everyday life so extensively that normally law-abiding citizens felt comfortable stealing money? Quite possibly, some experts said.

"If the rational aspects of one's world come tumbling down, one feels that all limits are off," said Dr. Mark J. Mills, a forensic psychologist in Washington. "Men who would never rape in peacetime commit horrible rapes during war. They feel all bets are off."

Irving B. Guller, the director of the Institute for Forensic Psychology in Oakland, N.J., said that some people might have stolen money because they believed their livelihood was threatened. They "might have done this as a self-protective act, to build up some sort of cushion if their jobs didn't come back or they couldn't get another job."

Also, people involved in catastrophes can have a sense of entitlement, he said. "Sometimes they feel they are entitled because they have suffered. The hurt they may do by taking more money is in their mind trivial to what they've gone through."

That the cash came from ATMs probably helped people disassociate from the idea that taking the cash was wrong.

"It's kind of like when money falls off the back of an armored truck," said Karen Franklin, a forensic psychologist in San Francisco. "Some people will turn it in, and some people will walk away with it. They felt they got lucky that day. It doesn't make them necessarily bad people. They might be the same type of people who would help other people in a face-to-face situation."

Dr. Elissa P. Benedek, a forensic psychiatrist in Ann Arbor, Mich., also noted that financial institutions have contributed to their customers' sense of distance. "Unless you are a rare individual, you don't have a personal relationship with the banks anymore."

Dr. Mills said that there is "a smaller group that feels that ordinary rules don't apply to them" anyway. …

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