Post-Earthquake Looting: Good or Bad?
Obviously this has come up twice already this year: the news story about looting that nearly always comes on the heels of a major disaster. Usually the picture painted by the story is simplistic; in the case of Chile, the BBC talked of looting of food from shops and electronic goods from homes in the same breath. But is it right to impose property laws on a population that is starving?
In Haiti, it took days for some to receive basic food supplies. It was a reminder that letting your house run out of food is stupid, but then these are people who live hand-to-mouth anyhow, not like us, who can afford a couple of bags of lentils and rice stowed away for safety*. During this time, it was implied that widespread looting might occur (it didn’t), with criminals taking advantage of a highly distracted police force.
Why do we automatically assume someone prepared to steal is doing the wrong thing? People attack the poor for not working, and then when they are going out and finding food instead of waiting for assistance, we attack them again. In Chile its unlikely these are actually organised gangs, and besides, does putting the army on the streets prevent regular criminals or those simply acting to protect themselves? I suspect its the latter who will be put off, whilst those already used to committing crime will simply carry on as before.
Obviously I’m getting at the situation made famous in Les Miserables and enshrined as law in France as the right to steal bread if you have no other means by which to eat. But I’m also remembered of what happened during the floods of 2000 here in York, where the council forced their way into a builders yard, helped themselves the supply of sand and forgot to pay for several months. The only reason it didn’t count as theft was because the (local) government did it and not local citizens.
If ever there was an argument for nationalised food stores, it would be this: that when a disaster strikes, you want everyone to be able to get their hands on free food aid immediately to ensure continuous supplies of food pass into the population, to ensure people remain as strong as possible during cholera outbreaks and long days of digging through rubble.
I wonder whether this shows a complete absence of trust in fellow humans from members of governments and controlling elites or a genuine fear that communities working together might use the crisis to discover new methods of collaborative working. After all, most humans do understand that cooperation is the key to getting through a crisis, and many communities will tell you that times of crises are the best for getting to know your neighbours, and for learning a new collective spirit.
Sadly, however, we live in a world where a warped sense of priorities means a starving population must await deliveries of food even when food can be dug out of the rubble of their local supermarket at much less cost to the government. Sometimes it seems property has become more important than life. At times like this, we need a humanity check.
*Ask someone who’s visited my house about the Zombie Supplies. You may be laughing, but if we’re trapped by a flood, at least we’ll have food.