The Looting Phenomenon

Posted on 03/09/10

A fascinating piece on looting in the New York Times begins with a quote from the French novelist Anatole France: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread."

France might have a hard time pushing that point today, when it is pretty much accepted that during a disaster one can take things in order to survive. But what if the things taken have nothing to do with survival? The article goes on:

Nonetheless, a pattern that now is a cliché of disaster journalism broke out there as well: Early reports of people raiding markets for food and diapers were quickly followed by pictures of people carrying TVs and dishwashers off into a city with no electricity. Intact stores were broken into. A department store in Concepción was set ablaze. In a few places, roving bands robbed anyone they could. Residents who formed self-defense posses were quoted saying that the "human earthquake" was worse than the geological one.

Which raises the questions: When are desperate people entitled to help themselves? And to what? At what chaotic point between the diapers and the dishwasher may the police shout, "Drop that (insert morally ambiguous item here) or I'll shoot?"

There appear to be three levels of taking thins from others:

Stealing food to survive is accepted by most.

Stealing TVs slides into a grey area. Yes, a starving man could sell a TV for food, but it's never clear his motives are that pure.

And the third level - rampage and mayhem that is really ethnic or class warfare or the Hobbesian "war of all against all" - is universally condemned, even though many say the poor of every country have a right to be angry and ought to be forgiven for showing it during a crisis.

What is probably hardest for us to decide is when force should be used. There is an argument if favor of it: Though looting starts spontaneously, how quickly it stops appears to depend on how rapid and severe a response it meets. That, in brief, is the argument for using force decisively.

The story notes that the 1863 rioting of poor laborers, the majority of them Irish, who didn't want to be conscripted to fight in the Civil War was one of the worst in history because most of the state militia was away in Pennsylvania and it was days before the riots could be stopped. But none of us likes to see forced used on TV.

We're probably more ambivalent about such matters than was Anatole France.

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