Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The psychology of looting

Imagine you are standing on a sidewalk looking into a store. A natural disaster has befallen your town. At your home, you are dangerously low on supplies: you are out of clean water, and nearly out of food. On the other side of that quarter-inch thick glass pane is clean water, food, medicine, and other supplies.

Do you break the glass?

My hunch is that the vast majority of people would say yes. Some would qualify their answer by saying that they would leave money or go back later to pay for what they took plus damages. But I think that just about everyone would agree that in a time of crisis, there are more important things than private property.

Now, let me ask another question. Let's say you have lived your entire life on one side of a line. People who live on your side of the line do not have new clothes, or good food, or decent housing, or jobs. People on the other side have plenty of all those things, and more. All your life, you have tried to cross this line, tried to better yourself through education in substandard schools or by searching for jobs where there are none. And then suddenly, one day, that line, a thin blue line marked out with police and laws and guns, is taken out of the way. Suddenly, everything you and your children have been denied is available to you. It's right there, just on the other side of that glass, and if you leave it, chances are it's going to be destroyed anyway by the swiftly rising waters.

Do you cross the line?

The primary reason for the existence of laws and police is the preservation of a certain disparity within society. Think about that statement for a second. Society contains some people who possess a great deal, and others who possess very little. The laws of our country, the majority of which deal with questions of money and property, serve to maintain this imbalance by creating categories of "rightful" ownership. Laws are like dams and levies that allow a state of non-equilibrium to exist, a situation in which there can be vast amounts of resources on one side, and very little on the other.

Looting is a breach in the cultural levy, a sudden and spontaneous rush towards equilibrium.

There are many people who will look at the pictures of looters in the morning papers and shake their heads and cluck their tongues. Most of these people, the vast majority, have never had to ask themselves whether they would cross that line if given the opportunity, because they were born on the other side of the line, the one defined by access to resources. Some who were born on the side of the line defined by poverty and deprivation will make the decision not to cross the line, and for them, I have nothing but the utmost respect.

For most of these people, Hurricane Katrina is not the real catastrophe. They have very little to lose. The real crisis is Hurricane Poverty, a storm they have been weathering their entire lives.

"In a time of crisis, there are things more important than private property." Perhaps that statement does not sit with us quite so comfortably as it did at the beginning of this conversation.

Looting is an uncomfortable reminder that there is a sizable percentage of our population that does not accept the cultural myth that those who have, have because they are better or smarter or work harder. And that should make those of us who live on this side of the thin blue levy very uncomfortable indeed.

St. Basil the Great on disparities of wealth:

Once wealth has been forcibly contained until it becomes a flood, it washes away all its embankments; it destroys the storehouses of the rich man and tears down his treasuries, charging like some kind of enemy warrior.

--from Homily Seven "I Will Tear Down My Barns"


Mimi said...

Looting is an uncomfortable reminder that there is a sizable percentage of our population that does not accept the cultural myth that those who have, have because they are better or smarter or work harder. And that should make those of us who live on this side of the thin blue levy very uncomfortable indeed.

Indeed, Sampson! I agree completely and your words as always ring true.

Johanna said...

Let them "loot", let them have it ALL...

This morning I read an article in the NYTimes about a couple of police officers in a Walgreens drugstore in New Orleans who were handing out needed goods to a line of people who had been there to "loot". Power to the people...who have a conscience & cannot bear to withhold what is needed simply to uphold the rule of law.

It seems more of a "crime" to keep these goods held as private property than it does to loot them.

Besides...we don't really own any of it, not in the higher sense. We are supposed to be stewards, not powerbrokers.

Miss Eagle said...

The year was 1959. I was not quite 15, growing up in Bowen, North Queensland, Australia. It was January - the Australia Day weekend - and we were hit by a cyclone (what Americans call a hurricane) of huge proportions - for the second time in second months. It seemed that what was not destroyed in the previous Easter cyclone would be destroyed in this one. Our home was destroyed - and the possessions of this working class, simple living family were looted. When our things were gathered up and my father's company had moved us into a company house that was vacant, we had barely enough knives and forks to set the table for a meal. My mother's precious heirloom brooch that had belonged to her grandmother and contained the hair of my great-grandmothers dead children had gone. My mother believed that our next door neighbours may have been involved when she walked up their stairs to see some linoleum in the same pattern as ours. Fast forward to the early days of the Iraq invasion. The museum carrying the artifacts of humanity's earliest civilization was looted. Worse still, the hospitals were looted. Looting is a common factor of war - so why did the US not make determined efforts to deal with it. I have no problems with people taking what they have to to survive. People have always done this - and European settlement in Australia began with many people who had stolen for survival. Looting is in a class of its own. Looters strike when others are vulnerable and defenceless. Looting goes beyond stealing. It goes beyond appropriation for survival. It strikes at neighbours who are at a low ebb whether the situation is war, a hurricane, a cyclone. Looting strikes at something within the individual, within the community. It is always regarded as a despicable act. This is why, when looting becomes a mob act, there seems to be, frequently, only one way to control it - and that is with violence. I wonder what people will find when, one day, they are allowed to return to New Orleans.

olympiada said...

Sampson, thank you for your voice of sanity. You are one of the few orthodox bloggers left who resonate with me. Thank you for blogging. You are a light in the darkness to me. God bless you and your family.

Johanna said...

And this very insightful letter to the editor quoted from my local paper:

"I am absolutely appalled by the stories of looting in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. No doubt there are fools who would bother to steal electronics when there is no electricity, but these people have lost everything. Corporations like Wal-Mart shouldn't be crying about stolen goods; they should be handing them out.
Kudos to the police who took control of one situation by showing compassion & handing out items such as diapers & food to residents. Does anyone in their right mind think these businesses will do anything other than throw these items away? These are people whose communities were completely destroyed, & who knows how long it will take to recover the area's economy.
It's insane to label someone who took food from a grocery store as a looter. There are things more important than the almighty dollar."

Seems to hit this nail right on its head.

raphaelthesinner said...

Sampson, "Survival-mode" looting is certanly morally defensable. And your words are thankfully challenging. Nonetheless, I have to agree with Eagle's Child: when looting is reprehensible when it is not for survival but for wide screen TV's.

You said, "The primary reason for the existence of laws and police is the preservation of a certain disparity within society." See and I thought Laws and Police were primarily for the safety and protection of the people. What about "Thou shalt not steal"; what about "Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" and "And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise." (Matt 7:12 and Luke 6:31). Care to clarify your point?


Eudoxia, a lover of the Lord said...

One of the people interviewed on a show last night was talking about the looters as "opportunistic people" who will take advantage of any situation. It caused me to think....

Hmmmm...opportunistic -- you mean like the gas station owners who raise the prices on gas before their costs go up? Or the insurance corporations that change their pay-out policies in the middle of a crisis to protect their "bottom line?" Or perhaps the government entities that acquire personal property through the use of "blighted areas" designation -- and then turn it over for corporate development to increase the tax base, etc.?

My guess is that the folks we see who have been hauling stuff out of stores has felt throughout most of their lives that they have been the victims of "opportunism" by powers greater than themselves.

The difficult for me is how to reconcile this dilemma. Some opportunism goes unpunished, indeed rewarded. Some is labeled as criminal.

I'm pleased that someone has opened a forum for the discussion. Thank you, brave soul.

Miss Eagle said...

The book, Leviathan, by the 17th century English political philosopher is of interest here. He talks about the law of the jungle and how it manifests. It is a classic for how power is exerted and society governed. Now those of us who have a higher view because of religious beliefs might be offended by this but I think we need to remember that we are part of creation. There are many complex issues here - ourselves as two legged animals, power, lawlessness and government in society, the opportunism of people who are looters/hunter-gatherers. The looters are a symptom. This is a mirror into which we are forced to look. Some have taken to looting very quickly. If the situation was to go on in New Orleans without any intervention of law and power, the attitudes of people who would never consider acting like the looters would crumble to fight for survival. Further consequences would flow from this - such as who is the strongest and how power is exerted. So often, the 21st century inhabitants of modern western societies think they have so much under control and so many resources to support them. They seem to think that they have left a naturalistic or primitive life behind. Katrina has put modern western society in a seldom seen perspective - and we are horrified. Let's not shrink from this, but think upon it, remember it, and learn from it.

alana said...

So, according to your social theory of law and order, the looting is justified because it is the "have nots" finally getting to take what the "haves" have been hoarding?

I have to respectfully disagree. The difference between sinners and saints arises in such circumstances. St. Juliana of Lazarevo, for example, did all she could during a famine to find food for those in her community, going hungry herself and strongly exhorting her servants to never steal. According to your theory, the stealing, especially by the servants, would have been justifiable in such a case as a famine.

It also makes me wonder, where is the line? As raphael pointed out, what about "Thou shalt not steal?".

Is the mere lack of a perceived necessity (even if one's life depends on that necessity) are justification for sinking into immorality? Seems the same justification could be made by the horny criminal who decides to rape someone...he has a need (whether for sex, violence, or both combined) and decides to forcibly get that need met. How is looting any different?

The poor, just because they are poor, do not have a free liscence for immorality. We are each of us called to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. There is no moral high ground in poverty, if that poverty is attended by anger, greed and an "I deserve" attitude. Neither is there moral high ground to be found in riches, if that state in life is attended by greed, self-congratulations and an "I deserve" mentality". The poverty of the poor that inherits the Kingdom of Heaven is precisely the kind of povety that would eschew looting and vandalism.

Now, having theorized sitting here with my full belly and my comfy home, would I be strong enough to "do the right thing"? I dont' know. God have mercy on me a sinner! Is there a moral difference between looting diapers and food, and even shoes, versus looting TV's etc? Probably so.

My hope, in this crisis, is that there will be some system set in place in the future that will enable a community to evcuate all it's members in advance, even the poor, the ill, and those without the means to leave.

Sampson said...

Thanks everybody, for the thoughts and ideas. I think the comments so far have been great, and have taken the discussion in some unforeseen directions. I love it.

Since a few people have asked me for "clarification," let me start off with this: I do not advocate looting as a means to social reform. For me, the question of whether looting is "moral" or criminal misses the point. Looting does not create a better world. We cannot loot our way to the New City. I think this is what we can learn, among other things, from the Eagle's Child's painful memory and reflection of how her own house was looted.

For me, looting is a fascinating study in human behavior and group psychology. What makes people loot? Some people, when faced with a crisis, get in touch with the best in themselves. Dorothy Day once said that her vision of an ideal community was forged while watching how people responded to the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, the way they helped each other. Catastrophe can bring out the best in us, or the worst. Some people help others, other people break into stores and steal stuff. Why?

Evdoxia referred to people who describe looting as "opportunistic," which I agree is less helpful than it might at first appear. “Opportunism” purports to speak to the “why” of looting, but doesn't really expose the motive. To say that looting is opportunistic is simply to describe the conditions in which looting takes place, the fact that people loot when there is opportunity, a particular atmosphere of lawlessness. But it doesn't tell us why they do it.

One unfortunate aspect of looting is that, as a form of protest, it tends to harm mostly the wrong people. This is, again, underscored by the Eagle’s Child’s story of looted working-class homes. After the Rodney King verdict, people LA burned down their own neighborhoods. They looted stores belonging to predominantly Asian-American small business owners, people whose income brackets were only slightly above their own. They didn’t loot Beverly Hills; that would never have been permitted. Looting tends to happen in low-income neighborhoods and the immediate surrounding areas. Shops and stores close down when neighborhoods are looted, and many never reopen, contributing to the overall decay of the area, to joblessness and urban blight.

Looting seems to be done mostly by people of a particular socio-economic bracket. People above a certain line of income and opportunity tend not to loot, whether or not they are greedy or opportunistic in other ways. It’s not that they couldn’t benefit; they might like a new plasma TV or Prada shoes. But they have much more to lose by getting caught than others. People below a certain income level are more likely to loot, and otherwise law-abiding people seem to get swept up in the fever, sometimes feeling quite sheepish about it afterwards. Looting is often all out of proportion to actual need. People carry away whole racks of shirts in the same size. One guy was reportedly pushing away a grocery cart with eighty or more bottles of wine. Looting is all about taking, not about needing.

Looting seems to be a response to repression. It’s what happens when you take the lid off a pressurized environment for a brief interval. This is what is pointed to by the looting of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. It seems that when people loot, they feel they are “getting back,” taking something they deserve that has been denied them, “stickin’ it to the man.” Looting is a form of protest, although a terribly inefficient one.

I think it’s really important for us to try to understand the motivations behind looting because eventually we will have to decide what to do about it. The usual response is more police, more laws, and more guns on the street. And if I am correct, this is not only not a solution to the problem, it will probably make things worse in the long run.

We cannot loot our way to a better world, but more laws and police and guns will not bring us any closer, either. What brings us closer is understanding why people do what they do, seeing the tendrils that connect us to them, recognizing the ways in which we have contributed to the creation of a world in which looting is a foreseeable outcome.


alana said...

So...looting as a symptom that helps us diagnose the real disease....I like you explanation.

raphaelthesinner said...

Thanks for the clarification. Good explaination. Also, after rereading my post I realized it probably sounded confrontational. It was not intended as such. Thanks for your level-headed reply.

Johanna said...

“We're just a bunch of rats,” said Earle Young, 31, a cook who stood waiting in a throng of 10,000 outside the Superdome, waiting in the blazing sun for buses to take them away from the city. “That's how they've been treating us.”

And how is it that we all sit in our comfortable homes away from the fray, thankful that at least WE'RE not in New Orleans right now, watching all the juicy details of this disaster unfold before our eyes with a somewhat obsessive morbid curiosity & fascination? I don't know about you, but it makes me feel guilty...watching all of this & talking/blogging about it, being "entertained" by it even, but doing WHAT about it? I felt sick to my stomach sitting down to dinner last night, looking at the food on my plate, knowing that I am here in my safe little place, with plenty to eat & drink, a clean place to sleep, clean clothes...and all of those people are out there, enduring wading through the slime of unsanitary conditions, hungry & thirsty, dying perhaps, certainly suffering.
This morning when I woke up I told my husband that I was feeling "fat" & that I wanted to know if he might be interested in a new kind of voluntary take 50% of our weekly food budget & donate it to relief organizations that are directly helping people affected by this hurricane aftermath. And for us to eat off of the other 50%. At least it's something. And everytime I feel hungry during this fast, I can remember who we're doing this for...the poor, primarily black, disenfranchised, economically enslaved people of our country's deep south, who have continually been left behind while we take care of ourselves & our interests first.

Eudoxia, a lover of the Lord said...

Johanna -- I share your disgust at the disparity of the present situation. But, what a wonderful idea you had! I'm going to suggest it to my husband, too. We'll be moving to Jacksonville, Florida in the next month -- wondering what awaits us there and how we can make a difference being closer in proximity to the disaster. Thanks for opening your heart.

Anonymous said...

the entire looting issue was so overblown. the fact that it dominated a lot of the coverage really says much more about the media and the resideual fear of urban poor.

Looting isn't even an applicable term for most of the expropriatiot hat took place. There are dozens and dozens of post apocalypse science fiction fstories and films where heros are raiding for supplies.

It isn't even a moral issue. This was a profound catastrophe and people had every moral right to take whatever they needed.

I speak as someone whos family business was destroyed by looting in the"race riots" of the 1960's.

Nektarios said...

To me, it seems simple really. You need to eat, there's food, there's no way to pay for it. Go get it. I don't even consider that looting, I consider it surviving. I don't see anything noble in dying outside of a semi-destroyed grocery store that's probably (virtually certainly) going to have to dispose of all that food anyway.

I wonder if people would be so upset if in fleeing from the hurricane, the hungry walked through an orange grove or an apple orchard and got a bite to eat? Or is it the "confronting commerce" which affronts people so badly?

I don't endorse the TV stealing or jewelry store break-ins, but food and other necessities I can understand.

Just for the record, I've been on the "wrong" side of that line before. I remember living in a house with all the utilities being shut off and I remember running out of food and my parents hoping we could eat the next day....

Like you said, people get all high and mighty having never been there. It's easy to judge others sitting on our nice plush sofas hundreds of miles away with a slice of pizza hut pizza in one hand and remote control in the other.