Monday, January 25, 2010

...And Looting Isn't Always Crime

In Haiti, right now, the media is causing a problem for the already-suffering victims. The problem is with labels, especially the label of "looting."

Rebecca Solnit, in her article "When the Media is the Disaster" in Guernica (January 21/10), demonstrates just how "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."

Solnit gives examples of photo captions that either presume a great deal about what is going on or isolate circumstances that make something look especially bad without showing the whole context.

For example, she cites the case of a photo with the caption: “A looter makes off with rolls of fabric from an earthquake-wrecked store.” For another photo, the caption reads: “A Haitian police officer ties up a suspected looter who was carrying a bag of evaporated milk.”

In both cases, Solnit believes that the only certainty is that the media are too quick with the word "looting," a response that privileges property over the survival of the people.

The "looter" with the bag of milk may have taken it to feed his and others' starving children. And whom would he pay and with what? Calling such an act a crime in the situation in Haiti would be laughable if it weren't so dangerous. The "looter" with the fabric may well have been going to use the cloth to make a tent or sunshelter for some of the many homeless. Again, in the circumstances in Haiti, a most logical response.

Solnit gives these and other examples, and these possible interpretations, to demonstrate the secondary victimization by the media of the already victimized. She says that the same thing happened in New Orleans after Katrina.

But, according to Solnit and sociologists who study human behaviour after 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.
Solnit believes that the media are obsessed with property and security and often exacerbate already bad situations. She insists: "We need to banish the word “looting” from the English language. It incites madness and obscures realities."

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

In Haiti, we need to get it right, and soon.


Ciss B said...

When will people (and governments) see that if there are an over abundance of poor people in distress they do break the law to survive.

It happens in our normal societies too and everyone in the wealthy part of the populace "tisk tisk," and say the people just don't stop and think about what they're doing - well, yes they do because they're often desperate for their families!

Salma said...

I have had so many discussion about this over the week-end. Why can't the media stop this? It is not helping. I would like to know how they would act.

Steal food to survive is looting? Steal necessities? I don't get it. On one hand people are saying we have to help them, on the other hand people are saying they shouldn't help themselves.

ChrisJ said...


I would make the same choice in that situation. It doesn't seem that hard to get it.

ChrisJ said...


The media reflects the way wealthier people think; some don't understand because they don't face the same situations. Maybe that explains some of it?

Meam Wye said...

You are quite right ChrisJ. It's good that you've highlighted this issue in your post; perhaps we will learn to be empathic and not carried away by 'sensational' news reports.

ChrisJ said...

"Sensational" is exactly the right word. How much more dramatic to see what we think is looting than a photo with caption:"Man walks along with bag of milk."

Pearl said...

that last paragraph nails it. the whole reporting from there seems a fiasco.

ChrisJ said...

It seems as if anything goes to sell advertising, even in a disaster.

corfubob said...

These comments and the excellent post highlight the insensitivity of those who have more than enough. Some people preach (I wonder who they are) that taking without permission is always stealing. In situations like this there is surely a case for allowing limited 'rescuing' of essentials, even on the basis that aid will replace goods lost and ruined in the disaster. Morality is indeed relative - is it not?

ChrisJ said...


I like the word "rescuing" for what's happening in many cases.

Solnit called it "emergency rationing."

Words have such power, but one needs the power to make them stick.