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Looting after disasters

January 22, 2010

This is a great essay by Rebecca Solnit in which she discusses the media’s lurid and unfair depictions of “looting” in Haiti:

Personal gain is the last thing most people are thinking about in the wake of a disaster. In that phase, the survivors are almost invariably more altruistic and less attached to their own property, less concerned with 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 emphasizes this disaster reality.) Crime often drops in the wake of a disaster.

Some of her other rhetoric is overheated, but her basic point is completely compelling: people shouldn’t be criminalized for preserving human life at the comparatively miniscule expense of property.

I only wish she had said more about how news of “looting” changes the response to disasters. I suspect it creates a situation where aid becomes conditional on law and order being re-established first, when in fact things are the other way around: aid is a precondition for any formal order.

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