By Rebecca Solnit

Soon after almost every disaster the crimes begin: ruthless, selfish, indifferent to human suffering, and generating far more suffering. The perpetrators go unpunished and live to commit further crimes against humanity. They care less for human life than for property. They act without regard for consequences.

I’m talking, of course, about those members of the mass media whose misrepresentation of what goes on in disaster often abets and justifies a second wave of disaster. I’m talking about the treatment of sufferers as criminals, both on the ground and in the news, and the endorsement of a shift of resources from rescue to property patrol. They still have blood on their hands from Hurricane Katrina, and they are staining themselves anew in Haiti.

Within days of the Haitian earthquake, for example, the Los Angeles Times ran a series of photographs with captions that kept deploying the word “looting.” One was of a man lying face down on the ground with this caption: “A Haitian police officer ties up a suspected looter who was carrying a bag of evaporated milk.” The man’s sweaty face looks up at the camera, beseeching, anguished.

Another photo was labeled: “Looting continued in Haiti on the third day after the earthquake, although there were more police in downtown Port-au-Prince.” It showed a somber crowd wandering amid shattered piles of concrete in a landscape where, visibly, there could be little worth taking anyway.

A third image was captioned: “A looter makes off with rolls of fabric from an earthquake-wrecked store.” Yet another: “The body of a police officer lies in a Port-au-Prince street. He was accidentally shot by fellow police who mistook him for a looter.”

People were then still trapped alive in the rubble. A translator for Australian TV dug out a toddler who’d survived 68 hours without food or water, orphaned but claimed by an uncle who had lost his pregnant wife. Others were hideously wounded and awaiting medical attention that wasn’t arriving. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, needed, and still need, water, food, shelter, and first aid. The media in disaster bifurcates. Some step out of their usual “objective” roles to respond with kindness and practical aid. Others bring out the arsenal of clichés and pernicious myths and begin to assault the survivors all over again.

The “looter” in the first photo might well have been taking that milk to starving children and babies, but for the news media that wasn’t the most urgent problem. The “looter” stooped under the weight of two big bolts of fabric might well have been bringing it to now homeless people trying to shelter from a fierce tropical sun under improvised tents.

The pictures do convey desperation, but they don’t convey crime. Except perhaps for that shooting of a fellow police officer—his colleagues were so focused on property that they were reckless when it came to human life, and a man died for no good reason in a landscape already saturated with death.

In recent days, there have been scattered accounts of confrontations involving weapons, and these may be a different matter. But the man with the powdered milk? Is he really a criminal? There may be more to know, but with what I’ve seen I’m not convinced.

What Would You Do?

Imagine, reader, that your city is shattered by a disaster. Your home no longer exists, and you spent what cash was in your pockets days ago. Your credit cards are meaningless because there is no longer any power to run credit-card charges. Actually, there are no longer any storekeepers, any banks, any commerce, or much of anything to buy. The economy has ceased to exist.

By day three, you’re pretty hungry and the water you grabbed on your way out of your house is gone. The thirst is far worse than the hunger. You can go for many days without food, but not water. And in the improvised encampment you settle in, there is an old man near you who seems on the edge of death. He no longer responds when you try to reassure him that this ordeal will surely end. Toddlers are now crying constantly, and their mothers infinitely stressed and distressed.

Rebecca Solnit.jpg

So you go out to see if any relief organization has finally arrived to distribute anything, only to realize that there are a million others like you stranded with nothing, and there isn’t likely to be anywhere near enough aid anytime soon. The guy with the corner store has already given away all his goods to the neighbors. That supply’s long gone by now. No wonder, when you see the chain pharmacy with the shattered windows or the supermarket, you don’t think twice before grabbing a box of PowerBars and a few gallons of water that might keep you alive and help you save a few lives as well.

The old man might not die, the babies might stop their squalling, and the mothers might lose that look on their faces. Other people are calmly wandering in and helping themselves, too. Maybe they’re people like you, and that gallon of milk the fellow near you has taken is going to spoil soon anyway. You haven’t shoplifted since you were 14, and you have plenty of money to your name. But it doesn’t mean anything now.

If you grab that stuff are you a criminal? Should you end up lying in the dirt on your stomach with a cop tying your hands behind your back? Should you end up labeled a looter in the international media? Should you be shot down in the street, since the overreaction in disaster, almost any disaster, often includes the imposition of the death penalty without benefit of trial for suspected minor property crimes?

Media outlets often call everything looting and thereby incite hostility toward the sufferers as well as a hysterical overreaction on the part of the armed authorities.

Or are you a rescuer? Is the survival of disaster victims more important than the preservation of everyday property relations? Is that chain pharmacy more vulnerable, more a victim, more in need of help from the National Guard than you are, or those crying kids, or the thousands still trapped in buildings and soon to die?

It’s pretty obvious what my answers to these questions are, but it isn’t obvious to the mass media. And in disaster after disaster, at least since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, those in power, those with guns and the force of law behind them, are too often more concerned for property than human life. In an emergency, people can, and do, die from those priorities. Or they get gunned down for minor thefts or imagined thefts. The media not only endorses such outcomes, but regularly, repeatedly, helps prepare the way for, and then eggs on, such a reaction.

If Words Could Kill

We need to banish the word “looting” from the English language. It incites madness and obscures realities.

“Loot,” the noun and the verb, is a word of Hindi origin meaning the spoils of war or other goods seized roughly. As historian Peter Linebaugh points out, “At one time loot was the soldier’s pay.” It entered the English language as a good deal of loot from India entered the English economy, both in soldiers’ pockets and as imperial seizures.

After years of interviewing survivors of disasters, and reading first-hand accounts and sociological studies from such disasters as the London Blitz and the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, I don’t believe in looting. Two things go on in disasters. The great majority of what happens you could call emergency requisitioning. Someone who could be you, someone in the kind of desperate circumstances I outlined above, takes necessary supplies to sustain human life in the absence of any alternative. Not only would I not call that looting, I wouldn’t even call that theft.

Necessity is a defense for breaking the law in the United States and other countries, though it’s usually applied more to, say, confiscating the car keys of a drunk driver than feeding hungry children. Taking things you don’t need is theft under any circumstances. It is, says the disaster sociologist Enrico Quarantelli, who has been studying the subject for more than half a century, vanishingly rare in most disasters.

Personal gain is the last thing most people are thinking about in the aftermath of a disaster. In that phase, the survivors are almost invariably more altruistic and less attached to their own property, less concerned with the long-term questions of acquisition, status, wealth, and security, than just about anyone not in such situations imagines possible. (The best accounts from Haiti of how people with next to nothing have patiently tried to share the little they have and support those in even worse shape than them only emphasize this disaster reality.) Crime often drops in the wake of a disaster.

The media are another matter. They tend to arrive obsessed with property (and the headlines that assaults on property can make). Media outlets often call everything looting and thereby incite hostility toward the sufferers as well as a hysterical overreaction on the part of the armed authorities. Or sometimes the journalists on the ground do a good job and the editors back in their safe offices cook up the crazy photo captions and the wrongheaded interpretations and emphases.

They also deploy the word panic wrongly. Panic among ordinary people in crisis is profoundly uncommon. The media will call a crowd of people running from certain death a panicking mob, even though running is the only sensible thing to do. In Haiti, they continue to report that food is being withheld from distribution for fear of “stampedes.” Do they think Haitians are cattle?

The belief that people in disaster (particularly poor and nonwhite people) are cattle or animals or just crazy and untrustworthy regularly justifies spending far too much energy and far too many resources on control—the American military calls it “security”—rather than relief. A British-accented voiceover on CNN calls people sprinting to where supplies are being dumped from a helicopter a “stampede” and adds that this delivery “risks sparking chaos.” The chaos already exists, and you can’t blame it on these people desperate for food and water. Or you can, and in doing so help convince your audience that they’re unworthy and untrustworthy.

We live and die by words and ideas, and it matters desperately that we get them right.

Back to looting: of course you can consider Haiti’s dire poverty and failed institutions a long-term disaster that changes the rules of the game. There might be people who are not only interested in taking the things they need to survive in the next few days, but things they’ve never been entitled to own or things they may need next month. Technically that’s theft, but I’m not particularly surprised or distressed by it; the distressing thing is that even before the terrible quake they led lives of deprivation and desperation.

In ordinary times, minor theft is often considered a misdemeanor. No one is harmed. Unchecked, minor thefts could perhaps lead to an environment in which there were more thefts and so forth, and a good argument can be made that, in such a case, the tide needs to be stemmed. But it’s not particularly significant in a landscape of terrible suffering and mass death.

A number of radio hosts and other media personnel are still upset that people apparently took TVs after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005. Since I started thinking about, and talking to people about, disaster aftermaths I’ve heard a lot about those damned TVs. Now, which matters more to you, televisions or human life? People were dying on rooftops and in overheated attics and freeway overpasses, they were stranded in all kinds of hideous circumstances on the Gulf Coast in 2005 when the mainstream media began to obsess about looting, and the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana made the decision to focus on protecting property, not human life.

A gang of white men on the other side of the river from New Orleans got so worked up about property crimes that they decided to take the law into their own hands and began shooting. They seem to have considered all black men criminals and thieves and shot a number of them. Some apparently died; there were bodies bloating in the September sun far from the region of the floods; one good man trying to evacuate the ruined city barely survived; and the media looked away. It took me months of nagging to even get the story covered. This vigilante gang claimed to be protecting property, though its members never demonstrated that their property was threatened. They boasted of killing black men. And they shared values with the mainstream media and the Louisiana powers that be.

Somehow, when the Bush administration subcontracted emergency services—like providing evacuation buses in Hurricane Katrina—to cronies who profited even while providing incompetent, overpriced, and much delayed service at the moment of greatest urgency, we didn’t label that looting.

Or when a lot of wealthy Wall Street brokers decide to tinker with a basic human need like housing… Well, you catch my drift.

Woody Guthrie once sang that “some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.” The guys with the six guns (or machetes or sharpened sticks) make for better photographs, and the guys with the fountain pens not only don’t end up in jail, they end up in McMansions with four-car garages and, sometimes, in elected—or appointed—office.

Learning to See in Crises

Last Christmas a priest, Father Tim Jones of York, started a ruckus in Britain when he said in a sermon that shoplifting by the desperate from chain stores might be acceptable behavior. Naturally, there was an uproar. Jones told the Associated Press: “The point I’m making is that when we shut down every socially acceptable avenue for people in need, then the only avenue left is the socially unacceptable one.”

The response focused almost entirely on why shoplifting is wrong, but the claim was also repeatedly made that it doesn’t help. In fact, food helps the hungry, a fact so bald it’s bizarre to even have to state it. The means by which it arrives is a separate matter. The focus remained on shoplifting, rather than on why there might be people so desperate in England’s green and pleasant land that shoplifting might be their only option, and whether unnecessary human suffering is itself a crime of sorts.

Right now, the point is that people in Haiti need food, and for all the publicity, the international delivery system has, so far, been a visible dud. Under such circumstances, breaking into a U.N. food warehouse—food assumedly meant for the poor of Haiti in a catastrophic moment—might not be “violence,” or “looting,” or “law-breaking.” It might be logic. It might be the most effective way of meeting a desperate need.

Why were so many people in Haiti hungry before the earthquake? Why do we have a planet that produces enough food for all and a distribution system that ensures more than a billion of us don’t have a decent share of that bounty? Those are not questions whose answers should be long delayed.

Even more urgently, we need compassion for the sufferers in Haiti and media that tell the truth about them. I’d like to propose alternative captions for those Los Angeles Times photographs as models for all future disasters:

Let’s start with the picture of the policeman hogtying the figure whose face is so anguished: “Ignoring thousands still trapped in rubble, a policeman accosts a sufferer who took evaporated milk. No adequate food distribution exists for Haiti’s starving millions.”

And the guy with the bolt of fabric? “As with every disaster, ordinary people show extraordinary powers of improvisation, and fabrics such as these are being used to make sun shelters around Haiti.”

For the murdered policeman: “Institutional overzealousness about protecting property leads to a gratuitous murder, as often happens in crises. Meanwhile countless people remain trapped beneath crushed buildings.”

And the crowd in the rubble labeled looters? How about: “Resourceful survivors salvage the means of sustaining life from the ruins of their world.”

That one might not be totally accurate, but it’s likely to be more accurate than the existing label. And what is absolutely accurate, in Haiti right now, and on Earth always, is that human life matters more than property, that the survivors of a catastrophe deserve our compassion and our understanding of their plight, and that we live and die by words and ideas, and it matters desperately that we get them right.

At the dawn of the millennium, three catastrophes were forecast for the United States: terrorists in New York, a hurricane in New Orleans, and an earthquake in San Francisco. Rebecca Solnit lives in San Francisco with her earthquake kit and is about to make her seventh trip to New Orleans since Katrina. Her latest book, A Paradise Built in Hell, is a testament to human bravery and innovation during disasters.

Copyright 2010 Rebecca Solnit


This essay originally appeared at

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53 Comments on “Rebecca Solnit: Covering Haiti: When the Media Is the Disaster

  1. Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeease.

    For people who were taking food and water – fine.

    People need to get their heads out of their backsides and recognize that ALL people have a desire to take TV’s, DVD Players, PC’s, and anything else they can lay their hands on when law and order break down and others start to do it. Especially the longer it goes on.

    That is looting – and it can avalanche and bring a society to its knees.

    It is explainable but inexcusable – and must be stopped.

    This attitude is exactly the kind of soft-racism, low expectations, and blindness that leaves social classes and whole nations mired in a cycle of total self-destruction.

    Want to really help people – demand more of them.

  2. The looting needs to be stopped, but by emergency aid, not self-righteous judgments. Is property an inviolable first principle of morality, or is it for people? Consider a radical perspective:

    “It is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly and use another’s property in a case of extreme need because that which a man takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need.”

    –St. Thomas Aquinas

    S. Theologiae, II-II, Q. 66, a.7, r.2

  3. “ALL people have a desire to take TV’s, DVD Players, PC’s, and anything else they can lay their hands on when law and order break down and others start to do it”

    You are wrong. Certainly some people would have such a desire, maybe most, but by no means all. It is plain the author feels no such desire or complusion to do so.

    That said, I do believe that the author is watching through “rose-tinted glasses”

    It is certainly possible that the bolts of cloth were for shelter; it is maybe equally likely they were taken because they were available for taking.

    Ever hear of “entrepreneurs” who sell bottled water for exhorbitant prices to the thirsty?

    The author’s problem is that everything she says conveying moral right is just what she has made up, nothing she witnessed to be true.

    So my story, that of the grocery owner who convoyed a group of people to his storage center with the promise of food and drink and found it all “liberated”, whereupon those who counted on these supplies to live all died, should be just as compelling.

  4. “Publius,” are you kidding me?

    Haitians have been kept without donated water, food, and medicines for days, causing (according to one Doctors Without Borders estimate) 20,000 extra deaths per day…why?

    Because of bogus “security” claims from people like you with a “property over people” mindset.

  5. What an idiotic article. All the usual tripe of the leftists is trotted out. The US is “invading” Haiti with their troops as opposed to providing humanitarian aid and security. Looters are actually “starving survivors” seeking only to quench their need for High-definition plasma tvs. Western media is “biased” towards these poor souls, portraying them as animals.

    If anything, the media has been instrumental in garnering Americans’ support for humanitarian relief. We are the greatest nation in the world, not just for our economic power and military might, but for our selfless giving in times of need. Remember the tsunami? How much did “oppressed” (by imperialistic powers) nations like Iran and Venezuela contribute again?

  6. I don’t think anybody has a serious objection to people stealing food and water when they are starving. The key difference with looting is that a looter isn’t trying to satisfy a particular concrete need; he’s trying to grab as much economic value as he can (taking the most valuable material available), for the purpose of maximizing his economic gain.

    “Personal gain is the last thing most people are thinking about in the aftermath of a disaster.” Lol! Light comic relief is at hand! Somebody didn’t live through the LA riots, it seems.

    On a final note, the author’s belief that controlling words means controlling minds is disturbing. When she says we need to get our words “right”, she means “morally right,” i.e. “comports with political rectitude.” And that kind of mental slavery isn’t going to fly in free societies. Our press often (perhaps even usually) fails to be factually objective, but that deficiency doesn’t mean the press should affirmatively embrace and glorify deliberate political propaganda — which is what the author advocates, pure and simple — as the alternative. Better to strive for unobtainable objectivity than to strive for political dogma.

  7. Hey Al… so I’m supposed to take seriously someone who uses phrases like “leftist tripe?” I know this isn’t worth my time but considering the kind of people you are attacking I can’t hold back.

    How about learn the history of Haiti, yes US invasions, creating the bloody Duvalier dictatorship dynasty, supporting two coups against the first elected president because he wanted to raise the minimum wage and protect critical state industries like cement, telephone, flour mills…. things that are essential at this time but have been closed or mismanaged to near uselessness thanks to the privatizations that the US government imposed.

    How about the actual looting of the country by the French government (assisted by US banks) where some $20 billion was extorted from Haiti over a century to make slaves pay for their own freedom?

    The US gives the LEAST money (as % of GDP) to foreign aid of ANY developed country, most of the aid is not really aid (agribiz food dumping aimed to weaken local farmers, as in the case of Haiti – the US is also the only developed nation that doesn’t get it’s food aid from local farmers), and US private charity donations have a lower % going to foreign humanitarian efforts than do those of any other developed nation.

    Not that it really matters, but yes Venezuela (and especially Cuba) have seriously mobilized to respond in Haiti at a level that belittles ours when the relative sizes of our nations are compared. (Actually, the Cubans were already there providing free medical care and crucial training of Haitian doctors, all free and no-strings-attached.)

    Our response is to send 12,000 soldiers and counting with expensive and deadly toys… how much food and medicine and rebuilding could all this millions in military crap pay for?

    I’m the “insane idiot” and you’re the guy who thinks people are actually looting plasma TVs.

    I like how you think that people are only paid things for adding to society. Would that this were true.

    I wonder what it would be like to be a person like you… sitting around thinking, hmmm… how can I disparage the dignity of the poorest and most immiserated people in the Western Hemisphere?

  8. It is this type of entitlement that creates all of the anti-American rhetoric in the world. You sit on your perch and judge those that have nothing. People stealing food and water is not looting, it’s surviving. Killing more people simply trying to survive, calling it looting, is deplorable. Even those people taking dvd players and electronics are stashing them for sale to rebuild the life they had when possible. The lack of electricity would cut into any immediate enjoyment they might have from their pilfered goods (because curling up with my new dvd player and dvds will help me forget that my entire city collapsed and 10 or 20% of my friends and family are dead). This is not an orchestrated, criminal faction hoarding stolen goods for a payoff down the road, it’s individuals trying to build up the captial to rebuild, and who gets hurt by it? The grocery store was insured (and even if it wasn’t did the owner survive, and if he/she did can they actually sell the goods that survived in a place with no economy left). They should be handing out electronics to every survivor they can for sale after rebuilding begins, it’s the only way for working and middle class people in Haiti to have any capital to rebuild with. Oh, and the U.S, Canada (my home, I’m sad to admit in this case) and France, through the U.N.’s help, have intentionally kept Haiti down for 75 or 80 years. Keep the “stealing is bad” morality play in the Dark Ages where it belongs, and stop judging people who would not know what to do with the wealth you take for granted. “Expect more from them” Publius wrote; he, and those like him, should read a book or two and stop spewing their entitled ignorance.

  9. The reason that controlling looting in this situation is critical is that Chaos is a very real threat. Looting becomes rioting becomes gang-rule. There’s a decent chance we’re looking at that soon in Haiti. Nothing about the Haitians in particular. Look at Baghdad after Saddam fell. Mayhem and murder. The Congo. Security is always the first thing to restore when everything collapses like in that awful quake. When faced with starvation, any group larger than a village will discard most of those conventions that we like to think of as naturally human. As the Iraqi said when Baghdad descended into madness, “Better 20 years of dictatorhip than one day of chaos.”

  10. Neil, thanks for reminding us all that nations in which stealing is socially accepted and tolerated are far more enlightened, civilized, and humane than those cruel medieval hellholes that enforce property rights. I’m sure that Haiti will not regret its decision to abandon property rights, a sure-fire path to economic advancement for its citizens.

    On a related note, I hear in Zimbabwe the economy runs on redistributive justice alone. Literally, you just feed sanctimonious moralizing principles into a special machine, and the economy then automatically spits out wealth and prosperity for all.

  11. John I know you’re trying to be more empathetic than some but you’re missing the point by citing Iraq and the Congo and in doing so you play right in to institutional propaganda that justifies prolonged military interventions.

    The chaos in Iraq was made in the USA (let’s ignore for a moment the history of empowering Saddam, killing progressive opposition, destroying the country in the first illegal war, the genocidal sanctions etc.)

    In Iraq everyone who worked for the previous government (which was a lot of people, including many capable and decent people) was immediately fired BUT the army was somehow allowed to take home guns and other weaponry… combine that with the US arming ethnic militias and playing favorites and you have the makings of a civil war, one which is presented without context to the US public as being from the savage and primitive (or “crazy Muslim”) instincts of the average Iraqi.

    The situation in the Congo is even more obviously the result of foreign interference… from some 10 million Congolese wiped out by the Europeans in mass crucifixions etc, to the CIA assassination of Lumumba, the only promising major politician in the country’s history, to installing Mobutu and planting the seeds for later genocide, to allowing US and other companies to feed directly into the “blood minerals” that still catalyze and fund the murders, while claiming with a straight face that Iraq was a “humanitarian operation.”

    The “security first” mindset is a festering evil that could well come back to haunt us if peak oil, climate change or any other resource crises take place in the US.

    I disagree that Bush or any other major leader here was “fascist” in the textbook sense, but as long as Americans are trained to believe that military rather than humanitarian responses are what’s needed following disaster then fascism in the textbook seems to me to be the most likely outcome of the kinds of disasters that our economic system is hard at work preparing.

  12. Michael Roberts there is no nation where stealing is socially acceptable.

    I sense what you fear and hate is the idea of organized redistribution of wealth, such as taxes to pay for social safety nets and generalized progress.

    I know it feels very self-righteous to defend “rights” for legal definitions rather than people, but guess what…

    The reason so many people die from “natural” disasters is because wealth has not been distributed from the extremely wealthy (people, companies, and businesses) to such basic needs as safe buildings, back-up transportation and communication infrastructure, and stockpiles of foods, medicine, and water (or water purification equipment).

    Don’t even think about giving me this line that someone like me supports the nonsense in Zimbabwe, N. Korea, etc. Someone like me would probably be the first to be imprisoned in such a society.

    Your ideas, however, are directly responsible for all the needless death and suffering that “natural” disasters continue to “cause.”

  13. Neil,

    I agree with what you say (in response to Publius), but I don’t know why you drag the so-called “Dark Ages” into it. I don’t even know what particular period of time you are talking about, but as Chad pointed out above, St. Thomas Aquinas taught in the 13th century that taking what you need is not “stealing.” The phrase “Dark Ages,” when it’s used at all by historians these days, refers to a much earlier period, but I suspect that theologians of that era would have agreed with Aquinas.

    I’m not just being pedantic. The vile and reprehensible valuing of property over life evident in some posts on these forums is not a survival from some “dark” period of the remote past. It doesn’t belong anywhere, but it certainly doesn’t belong in the past any more than the present. It arises from specifically _modern_ ideas and should be addressed as a sickness of _our_ time instead of blaming the poor “Dark Ages.”

  14. Yes, I’m sure the Haitians are stealing HDTVS and cell phones, and Rolls Royces, and Yachts. That is right, the poorest country in the western hemisphere is stealing items that don’t exist in their country, from the non-existent vendors of this type of materials. This is the US.

    They(50%)live off of less than a dollar a day. How gullible(stupid)are you to believe that “American Consumerist Shit” is prevalent enough to even question that it is being “looted”. They taking what is needed to survive today and tomorrow. This country has lost 30% of their GDP since the disaster. Put that in your brain for more than a second.

    I say take what you need. You’ll die waiting for aid.

  15. You bet Mike, that’s exactly what I meant. The point I was trying to make is the same made in the article (which I was defending to the ridiculous statements by Publius). I am not saying that stealing is great, I am saying that the focus should be helping people and not protecting property. The owners in Haiti are predominantly those established by outside corporations (implemented during the 75 or 80 years of our coutries keeping the Haitians down and kept in place by the corrupt government we established). These people will get reimbursed for what was in the store when it collapsed if they were fortunate enough to survive the earthquake. The middle and working classes there will not be so lucky, again, because we have done our best to shock the middle class into the working class and the working class into basic survival made. Soldiers shooting “looters” does not help anyone, and I agree more with the author’s assertion that people are more concerned with survival (see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) than the concern of chaos (a valid point) that Mr. Colorado brings up. If you have waves of looters wreaking havoc chaos is a concern, a dude with a bolt of fabric on his sholder is not bringing hell with him. What the article points out, and what I was defending, is that preserving the salvage for the few wealthy is not more important than preserving survival for the vast working class. The second organized and armed mobs start moving in, and they haven’t by anything I’ve read, that soldiers need not shoot a man with a bag of evapoprated milk (because it belongs to the store and not him). Some individuals will steal, for reasons you and I will never understand (some greed, some to survive)and we don’t have the right to judge them for doing so. Thank you for considering my points and not simply oversimplifying what I said and dismissing me though.

    P.S. Zimbabwe’s situation ties back to man Ronald Reagan (I’m guessing the best thing since sliced bread in your eyes) called the a becon of hope and the example to follow for developing nations in Africa (I’m paraphrasing, but a direct quote from 25-30 years ago is a tall order). Mugabe’s trip from beloved leader to despot in Africa was supported, and funded in part, by the US government aide to a man they know was abusing it and direct payment from corporate interests for access to resources. They only distanced themselves when Mugabe got so bad that to stick with him had negative political ramifications. At least you know the history of your example.

  16. I apologize for the broadness of my statement to someone who clearly knows more on the subject than I do. I simply meant the funtion of the morality play. The church’s use of teaching good Christian values to actually spread hatred (especially anti-semitism). I was trying to say that we, as individuals and nations, have no right to judge the actions of those who steal in Haiti and why they do. Our poorest citizens live better than the majority of Haitians did before the quake. Thanks for the clarification on the Dark Ages.

  17. Funny that the media makes such delinquents out of these people: literature and pop culture raise them up as heroes – think Aladin and Les Miserables, for starters.

  18. Half way through this article I realized I just grew up a little. It’s startling to have your mind opened with a different take on a word and a perspective. Thanks.

  19. A gallon of milk is one thing.

    A TIVO is another.

    There is subsistence foraging, and there is criminal opportunism.

    The distinction is real.

  20. all your guys’s “hypothetical scenarios” about flatscreen TVs and TIVOs have nothing to do with what’s going on in Haiti and simply obscure what is a very urgent and important issue.

    are you aware of that or not?

  21. Leif, I agree with much of what you say on Iraq and Congo. I don’t see that you address my comment though, which has to do with the threat of chaos REGARDLESS of political history — when extraordinary situations promote it. Baghdad fell to mass murder and mayhem when all social mechanisms to support social order collapsed, which showed me next to nothing unique about Iraqis or Muslims — and showed me nothing about the geopolitical events that preceded it. This is the risk in Haiti today. Only tens of thousands of well-provided troops that are already there will keep that from happening.

  22. A thought-provoking essay about the sanctity of human life contrasted with the sanctity of private property.

    St Irenaeus said that when you give to the poor you are only returning to them what you have taken stolen. St Anthony of Padua said that the gates of Heaven are wide for the poor, but narrow for the rich.

    In a consumer world where millions of tonnes of canned and packaged foodstuffs past their sell-by date are dumped it seems fatuous and amoral for armed police and soldiers to be standing guard beside the rubble of destroyed shops and supermarkets.

  23. There is all the difference in the world between “starving” and “hungry.” I have no doubt that the chaos has left many people hungry but unless they were starving before the quake they are not starving now.

    Starving people have a license to steal, hungry people do not.

    When you overstate your case you make it easy for people to dismiss your message.

    The world is responding to the mess in Haiti with remarkable generosity. However people are burned out on sending relief to never-ending disasters in corrupt 3rd world societies.

    If we are paying Haiti’s bills (and now we are) then we get to comment all we want on what they are doing.

    If they don’t like our comments then they should learn to govern and support themselves.

    If they are going to take our money then they should shut up and be grateful.

    If a country cannot stabilize itself after over 200 years then someone else should step in and govern for them. Why can’t the U.N. make itself useful and take over the administration of some of these train-wreck 3rd world countries?

  24. “We need to banish the word ‘looting’ from the English language. It incites madness and obscures realities.”

    Exhibit A: This article.

    Did I just go through a time warp and land in a college communications class in 1992? If there is a political correctness museum somewhere, they should seriously consider acquiring this piece.

    Media critics: Get it into your sanctimonious skulls that consumers of media are not complete idiots. We know that the media simplifies and skews and sensationalizes events, just as they have since the freaking beginning of time. Now go back to jerking off to Susan Sontag.

  25. Three million people are without homes; hundreds of thousands might be dead. But ten days after their entire city was destroyed they probably could do with just a little snack or something.

    Have you ever gone a day in your life without food, much less ten? Do you realize how appalling your words sound?

    You might do well to read Leif’s brief summary of some of the key points in Haiti’s history–contrary to what you seem to believe their situation of dire poverty (and yes, corruption) did not spring up in a vacuum: those Western countries who are now “paying the bills” ENSLAVED the people of Haiti and then made them PAY for their freedom, among many other incidents of exploitation.

    I’ve rarely read anything so blatantly and ignorantly colonialist: “why can’t the UN take over?” um, have you heard about this thing called sovereignty? and how in the 1800s the European nations stole it by force from just about every country in the world that had lesser weapons technologies than they, for their own material gain? Europe (and America too) destroyed the prospects of countless peoples through exploitation and subjugation–but “they should shut up and be grateful.”

    Yes, I would be really, really grateful to the nations that had willfully and knowingly doomed me for their own benefit and now consider themselves oh-so-noble for giving aid in the wake of a massive natural disaster.

    Yet you think “they should just learn to govern and support themselves.” How do you think we got to the point where we could “support” ourselves? The wealth of Europe and its offshoots, beginning in the Industrial Revolution, are predicated on THEFT from peoples less obsessed with developing ways to kill: in America we stole an entire continent from the Native Americans and labor from Africans; the European countries stole natural resources, land, and labor from all over the world. These factors set our economies on the path towards our modern day “self-sustenance.”

    We don’t exist in a vacuum–please study history.

  26. Peg, you are a horrible human being.

    The people (most of whom WERE hungry before) who have been without food for maybe 10 days do NOT have a right to take food from collapsed grocery stores that will do the owners no good in the rubble anyway?

    Much of the world is being generous about Haiti, but most governments are not. Europe gave a small fraction (about 5%) of the money it literally extorted from Haiti, the US gave about a month’s worth of it’s military budget (after having ransacked the country for a century), and all in all the World Food Program says it only has 16% of the food it needs ready for the next month.

    Meanwhile MSF says 20,000 people may be dying per day for lack of surgery and antibiotics, and many of the surgeries they are performing (like amputations) are being done without real anesthesia, including some on children.

    Virtually everything you say is like an inverse of the truth and of basic morality…

    “People are burned out on sending relief to never-ending disasters in corrupt 3rd world societies.”

    Polls have shown that Americans generally believe the amount their govt. gives in foreign aid to be OVER THIRTY TIMES as much as it really is, and yet most still would support “higher aid” based even on that false knowledge.

    “If we are paying Haiti’s bills (and now we are) then we get to comment all we want on what they are doing.”

    We are not paying bills and “we” have (and continue to do) much more than “comment.” “We” have overthrown their elected governments and used financial terrorism to force them to destroy what little security and chance of development they had (see agro-dumping, privatizations, austerity programs, etc.)

    “If they don’t like our comments then they should learn to govern and support themselves. If they are going to take our money then they should shut up and be grateful.”

    So they’re poor cuz their dumb and now they should shut up? I’d love to place you in front of some newly orphaned possibly amputeed kids and have you tell that to them directly, then I could be amazed at the saintly compassion of the poor when they don’t murder you.

  27. John, I’m not going to assume any special expertise into what is really going on in Haiti right now, just reading interviews with locals, NGO workers, nuns etc. on sites like Democracy Now…

    The question is what do Haitians really need and want right now? And since they don’t want (by and large) foreign soldiers, the question is, and since sending military forces sucks money away from humanitarian relief, then the burden is really on supporters of military occupation of Haiti to make their case as one of urgent necessity.

    And I just don’t by it. “What if…” scenarios are a serious danger right now.

    “Baghdad fell to mass murder and mayhem when all social mechanisms to support social order collapsed…”

    You say you agree with my background on Iraq, but that it’s not relevant when determining how to address the current chaos?

    The social mechanisms and social order didn’t collapse by themselves, they were destroyed through conscious planning to meet the goals of the occupying forces.

    The fire had gasoline poured on it when Iraqi armories were allowed to be (or were directly) distributed to paramilitary groups.

    It has a dump truck full of charcoal poured onto it daily as long as US soldiers stay there, shooting and bombing people “by accident” and generally humiliating and entrapping much of the population as part of it’s daily operations.

    So ask the Iraqis (or Afghanis etc), if you believe in democracy, what they want, and you will hear that they want all foreign soldiers to leave, yesterday.

    There are other ways the US can help repair the chaos, such as through (non-military) technical and humanitarian assistance. That’s it. More “surges” would be counter-productive, probably by design.

    In Haiti the “chaos” scenarios are even more ridiculous, as there are no well-organized paramilitaries there, just street gangs and muggers who have, according to both locals and the UN, significantly lowered their crime activity since the earthquake.

    “This is the risk in Haiti today. Only tens of thousands of well-provided troops that are already there will keep that from happening.”

    Wrong and wrong. Let’s remember that all risks are not equal… we have millions dying from tobacco and the chance of getting killed by terrorists in the US is much less than getting struck by lighting, for example.

    There are incredibly serious REAL and unavoidable risks in Haiti right now, disease, dehydration, hunger, rebuilding of infrastructure and economy, psychological healing, etc.

    EVEN if I believed that violent chaos was among those real problems right now, military forces from the US is still not a solution to that problem. Instead it goes back to empowering civil society, neighborhood watch groups and committees, empowering the many new refugees to transparently control the distribution of aid to their own communities and so on.

  28. Whoops, BIG MISTAKE…

    The money the US govt is giving to help Haiti is the same as the military budget for about 45 MINUTES!!! (Sorry for the math error above.)

    Also, the US is turning down visas for severely injured Haitians to come to the US and recieve treatment even at hospitals who have offered to do it for free.

    And it’s preparing cells at GUANTANAMO BAY for Haitian earthquake refugees who get caught at sea.

    Still think the US is the “most generous nation in the world”?

  29. Both sides here are right.

    In a society completely free of coercion and the use of force…i.e. one where judicial and legislative corruption is unheard of, where people and corporations become wealthy solely on their merits, where external forces have not and do not interfere with the normal functioning of markets or elections, and in which wealth is never, ever redistributed by graft or at the point of the gun…

    In such a society, property is the ultimate moral value and as sacrosanct as life itself. And this should be the standard by which America seeks to resist its own decline.

    Saying so might make me a right-winger.

    On the other hand, it is not “racism” to say that under less ideal circumstances, other rules may apply. For instance, if one “allocated” a shipment of grain from the “people” in the USSR to one’s friends, that was a form of capitalism. And here it all gets mixed up. In a place where vast accumulations of wealth have already been stolen by fiat, taken with the stroke of a pen, backed by a gun… in a country like Haiti which has been run by the most major league looters of the Western hemisphere, wearing one military uniform or another, for the past 400 years… is it stealing to take a bolt of cloth under desperate circumstances? Or is it simply stealing *back*?

    Robin Hood might have been a moral criminal if the common legend is true… by what right should the poor, who earn nothing and contribute nothing, steal from their betters? On the other hand, even Ayn Rand admitted that if the rich had stolen that property, “looted” it first by force as opposed to accumulating it by hard work, then Robin may have been right.

    I think we can reconcile people on both sides of this debate because both sides here are right, in a limited way. It is NOT right to allocate anything based on need alone. But when you weight the use of force into the equation… force being the one tool it is never morally permissible to use in acquiring property… the landscape in Haiti and (to a much more limited extent) New Orleans makes sense and the author’s point can be validated to some degree, without any concession that private property is less than essential to morality.

  30. Ho-hum. I wonder how many others out there (in America) are just like me in that they simply don’t give a damn about Haiti or Haitians?

    I reject Aquinas’s concept that someone’s *need* for the fruits of my labor is a greater claim on them than my having *earned* them.

    Still, I pay my taxes. I knuckle under to my employer’s coercion and contribute to United Way. As far as I’m concerned, any charitable “obligation” that I might have is thereby fully discharged.

    You bleeding-hearts seem to forget that you are free to donate all you like to meet any need you perceive. Indeed, your biggest complaint seems to be that you can’t reach any deeper into *my* pocket to fund your smug altruism.

  31. “I don’t think anybody has a serious objection to people stealing food and water when they are starving. The key difference with looting is that a looter isn’t trying to satisfy a particular concrete need; he’s trying to grab as much economic value as he can (taking the most valuable material available), for the purpose of maximizing his economic gain.”

    Then we all agree with Ms. Solnit that a person taking a bag of evaporated milk or some bolts of fabric cannot simply be labeled a looter without either:

    a. some convincing evidence that the person is going to exploit these basic goods for economic gain, or

    b. an assumption of exploitation for economic gain, which is an assumption of guilt until proven innocence.

    In all the reporting cited by Ms. Solnit, the media seems to be doing the latter. The CNN video was particularly egregious in this respect – what looks like a perfectly harmless and logical case of people double-checking the pile of boxes left behind by the UN APCs is portrayed in voiceover as “fighting over empty boxes.”

    I might argue that this is not a problem with the media as a whole though, it’s just a problem with bad journalism – particularly evident on cable news.

  32. I have never thought of Stephen King as an acute observer of human nature and sociological phenomena, but it’s kind of amazing how perfectly “Under the Dome” illuminates and resonates with Ms. Solnit’s excellent article here, as well as many of the comments (Leif Larsen’s 4th in particular).

    Sorry for the nerdy references, but Big Jim Rennie as a every corrupt third world leader or dictator… the supermarket “riot” (and all the machinations, manipulations, ugly but forgivable human behavior, and heroism involved) as echo of Katrina and Haiti “looting”…?

    A pop culture masterpiece that perfectly evokes our time.

    I bet it would make a great double feature with A Paradise Built in Hell (which I am now greatly looking forward to reading)!

  33. There is all the difference in the world between “starving” and “hungry.” I have no doubt that the chaos has left many people hungry but unless they were starving before the quake they are not starving now.

    Just who in the hell do you think you are??? These people have just suffered a complete breakdown of everything that they had. They may not have been “starving ” before but they sure as hell are now. You ARE a horrible human being. Someone should come and take “everything” that you own and love and leave you on the street to suffer with no light at the end. The food that these people are stealing is to survive, either for themselves or the ones they love.

    The political rambling is not the issue here, surviving something that they had no control over is. I personally have never had to suffer in any way, and hope never to have to. But, that said, if I had to steal to stay alive and look after those who couldn’t, I would. There is nothing more disgusting than that of someone who has no humanity in any part of them. Self righteous scum bags like you should crawl back under the rock you came from.!!

  34. The question reverts to one of the foundations of civilization; the rule of law (and order).

    Would it be permissible for a fellow Haitian to murder a fellow looter in order to feed his own starving child?

    When you glorify wrongdoing, where do you draw the line?

  35. Evil white South-African, what, you want to play some corporate morals game? May you be haunted by the same crisis, half-dead, with a squalling baby in your arms and have to answer your own damn question.

    You glorify morals as if these people should find their ways into church pews and school debates before grabbing for the first food to shove in their mouths. Thankfully, the force to survive has nothing to do with internet idiots like you who want to pontificate about what the nation *might* become *if* these people survive a lack of food.

    Unless you all “but, but, but looooooters” whiners plan on surveying everyone that walks by with food in their hand, let’s assume that all food in the area of the earthquake is rightfully being diverted to sustaining an increasingly desperate population, whether dished out by an aid worker or grabbed by a hungry kid.

    In short, STFU.

  36. “Where do you draw the line?”

    EWSA, actually no sane person has any trouble drawing the line between making the best use of canned goods in an emergency and murdering someone for cannibalism. (Or how else did you mean that ridiculous hypothetical scenario?)

    Actually, only right-wing people would stay awake at night and (pretend to) worry about such deep ethical dilemmas.

  37. At Tammi

    Why would you assume that in a crisis situation food is rightfully diverted when this does not even happen under normal circumstance? When law and order breaks down there are always an increase in might-is-right ethics. Since I can see there isn’t enough to go around, what would stop someone like me from clubbing someone like you over the head (or arm) in order to get that can of food you’re carrying? So in one sense, your point IS my point.

    At Leif

    As to my ‘ridiculous hypothetical scenario’ see above.

    And yes, I do occasionally lie awake at night worrying about ethical problems but mostly I enjoy the silence. Are you suggesting that left-wingers’ thoughts on ethics are superficial idease reserved for lunch-break?

    My point is that a crisis is not a catalyst that suddenly turns people into moral altruistic giants – experience teaches the opposite. And thus, re-establishment of law and order ALONG with OTHER basic necessities are crucial. Underminging law and order CANNOT bolster the humanitarian efforet.

  38. What is this “breakdown” everyone keeps talking about? Of law and order, or systems for emergency help and aid distribution? Do you honestly think that Haiti had these things before the disaster? No. Most of the country’s people were without clean drinking water, let alone electricity (so much for notions of people stealing electronics). Many, many children starved to death or died of preventable diseases every day. There was no ‘911’ type system at all, even if you had a phone there was no one to call. Hospitals lacked basic equipment, even if you did manage to find the money to pay. And many, many other problems as well.

    For everyone saying things like “looting… can bring a society to its knees”: The Haitian society was on its knees long before the earthquake hit. So try to have a little empathy. Try to learn about things a little before you speak, instead of assuming that everyone is like you, or that every community looks like yours.

  39. From NPR this morning:

    But at each camp, people described food distribution as irregular, inadequate and often violent and disorderly…

    “I can’t get there before the line runs out,” she said. “The strong go to the front, and even if you get food, the one who is hungrier snatches it away.”…

    My reaction: It doesn’t take armed militias to have gang-rule. (And, of course, Haiti was long run by the Tonton Macoute – the ugliest kind of gang.) All it takes is the breakdown of order.

  40. I wondered about the looting, myself. If people are running with TVs and stereo equipment it’s one thing, but food, water, first aid, it is easier to understand. When I first heard about the looting I tried to imagine what I would do in that situation, and decided if I had to, I would take water and food to save lives.

  41. A wise line from the Catechism of the Catholic Church…make sure you read it all…for taking food and other necessities of life does often fit the very definition of stealing…or looting..

    2408 The seventh commandment forbids theft, that is, usurping another’s property against the reasonable will of the owner. There is no theft if consent can be presumed or if refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods. This is the case in obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing . . .) is to put at one’s disposal and use the property of others.190

  42. A wise line from the Catechism of the Catholic Church…make sure you read it all…for taking food and other necessities of life does NOT often fit the very definition of stealing…or looting..(ignore my former post…)

    2408 The seventh commandment forbids theft, that is, usurping another’s property against the reasonable will of the owner. There is no theft if consent can be presumed or if refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods. This is the case in obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing . . .) is to put at one’s disposal and use the property of others.190

  43. Al,

    “I guess in your bizarro world, the actual people who invent, produce, and work to make this world a better place (that is, push the envelopes of human achievement, not rabble rousing like all your ilk is good for) have no right to the fruits of their labor, but must be forced to share them with the poor unfortunate welfare mother with 15 kids from 15 different dads.”

    The people who invent, produce, and work, with few well-publicized exceptions, get shit. That you believe otherwise makes me fairly certain you’ve invented nothing and produced nothing of value.

    Almost all serious technological breakthroughs have come from the state-funded sector, like computers, transistors, aviation, satellites, solar and nuclear power, the internet, synthetic materials, pharmaceuticals, nanotechnology and genetic engineering.

    These also then mostly given over to large corporations, who also have research departments where many dedicated people are, contrary to your fantasies, not the owners of the knowledge that they produce.

    The third-world farmers who still manage to feed most of the world without enough money for real tools, irrigation, fertilizer etc. could teach you some things about real work and production. I know for a fact you’ve had no contact with people like that. I have just a bit, for which I feel grateful.

    “Some people really are too stupid to live.”

    Although ultimately I disagree, you’ve made a very persuading case.

  44. Larsen

    You talk as if corporations are some sort of borg-like creature and not made up of individuals and OWNED by individuals. GE is OWNED by individual shareholders, pension plans. Or are you too stupid to realize that? I may work for a corporation, but I also invest my earnings in this and other corporations and I benefit when they do well and make a profit.

    The people who invent, produce, and work get their share of the wealth. Let me guess – you’ve got no problems with “artists” and “musicians” making millions off their record labels. How the hell is that any different? Sony music gets their cut for investing in these nobodies and converting them into somebodies and the artists get their share. This is how the world works imbecile.

    Let’s give you an even simpler example. You’re probably homeless, but let’s assume you’re a farmer. You need to buy a plot of land but have no money and in order to make money, you need a plot of land. You go to a bank to borrow cash to buy the land and start your business. Bank ain’t gonna give it to you for free. And in a non-capitalist country, you’ll be a peasant your entire life, working for someone else. So you buy a plot of land. Soon it becomes successful so you need to hire help. Now, are you “exploiting” these workers to make yourself rich? Or are you filling a need and doing good for the world (both consumers of farm products AND the workers)?

  45. Tammi Coles uttered:

    Unless you all “but, but, but looooooters” whiners plan on surveying everyone that walks by with food in their hand, let’s assume that all food in the area of the earthquake is rightfully being diverted to sustaining an increasingly desperate population, whether dished out by an aid worker or grabbed by a hungry kid.

    In short, STFU.

    Yeah? How about the most likely scenario that the food in the area is all being grabbed by strongman thugs and gangs and being sold to the starving at exorbitant prices. You think the people looting are going to just loot their “fair share” without supervision? Oh, I just need one twinkie, so I’m going to take one twinkie today. Fuck no, they’re taking everything they can get their hands on, at the expense of the weak and women and children. So despite what you trusting liberal idiots think, yeah, we need the US military to protect the lambs from the lions.

  46. Black people in New Orleans are not the same as black people in Haiti. To not draw a distinction and think that Haitians are looting TVs reveals your clueless-ness about how poor Haiti is.

    That said, if some of y’all had paid attention to the criticism of post-Katrina coverage, you’d know that looting reports were exaggerated. Some would say greatly so. People were not stealing TVs in great numbers. Yet even if they were, remember that TVs are also a way to get information – perhaps the only way for many to get timely information.

  47. The concept of property exists within the social contracts that define most modern societies. It has become a necessary tool to help build and maintain societies of great complexity.

    However, when a society is struck by a catastrophic disaster and its complexity is reduced to the basics, the rules change and the social contracts that allow them to exist and survive as a society gain significantly more importance over those that allow them to be more complex.

    Property is a social contract that will be required in order to help rebuild a complex society, but it will be accepted by the members of a society only after the most fundamental social contracts are satisfied, those that guarantee their survival.

  48. Al,

    Your earlier point was that the people who “produce” are the ones who earn, but now you’ve accurately clarified that stockholders are the ones who earn from employee creativity.

    You seem a little muddled about who actually owns most stock. Check out something called the “L Curve” to see what that looks like.

    Why do you feel the need to call everyone “stupid” who understand things that you don’t?

  49. Al,

    “You think the people looting are going to just loot their “fair share” without supervision?”

    This is one of the central contentions of Rebeca Solnit’s new book – which I just bought and finished today, it’s excellent!

    She points out through RESEARCH and EYE-WITNESSES how people really respond after severe disasters.

    People are not uniform, but the vast majority (surprising to even my somewhat less indoctrinated viewpoint) have acted with amazing altruism (often with ad-hoc community “supervision” not just as atomized pleasure-maximizing machines), and NOT as you claim by hoarding scarce goods to sell to the weak at exorbitant prices.

    As someone who seems to have promised both your soul and your intellect to the “Market god” it may be impossible to understand that human nature is inclined to act this way in emergencies, but we should all be grateful to Ms. Solnit for actually demonstrating that this is the case.

    I worry for America where this altruistic nature seems to have been burned and ground away in so many.

  50. ps –

    I’m not interested in rock stars earning millions, although your idea that “nobodies” in creative fields should become “somebodies” only through corporate shepherding has brought us to our current black hole in popular music. That’s pretty off-topic though.

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