Needless to say the term “looting” is weighed with moralistic judgment — it is reserved, as the Post’s Mac Donald would have it, for the “loathsome”; in New Orleans, looters did not deserve to live. During the London riots, looters were regularly described as senseless animals; a six-month prison sentence was doled out to a young person who stole bottled water.
Following reports on the treatment of looters during Katrina, Rebecca Solnit noted that what gets called “looting” is often to her better characterized as “foraging or requisitioning.” Instead of joining Solnit in her reframing — which risks drawing problematic lines between “good looting” and “bad looting”– I’d simply argue that the demonization of looters has again and again illustrated where priorities lie during disasters (which, in turn, shows where priorities lie all the time). And I’d echo another of Solnit’s basic points on the issue: Media frenzy over looting “regularly justifies spending far too much energy and far too many resources on control — the American military calls it ‘security’ — rather than relief.”
The media spin on Sandy’s “looters” is not simply reserved for the bile-fueled pages of the New York Post. ABC News headlined a report, “Looters prey on Sandy’s hardest hit.” The story noted that looting incidents had taken place in some of the city’s worst-hit neighborhoods, but failed to consider that looters themselves might be local to these very neighborhoods — the most likely scenario, given transit outages — not marauders seeking to worsen tragedy. Indeed, the piece cites an alleged looter who told the New York Daily News, while taking a TV from Rent-a-Center in Coney Island, “Look, they’ve been looting our wallets for too long … It’s about time we start taking this sh— back.” The cognitive dissonance is notable: ABC’s headline says looters prey on storm victims, a looter talks about reappropriating goods from the wealthy.
No doubt, individuals who have had their homes destroyed in the storm and then robbed will feel a doubly sharp sting. But the moralistic outrage with which looting is decried does not reflect concern for these victims — indeed the victims listed in the ABC story are an Ann Taylor and a Brookstone store; the Post wrote that “scum” stole from a Radio Shack and 99-cent store among other businesses. This sort of frenzied concern for property over people just seven years ago created conditions under which a “shoot looters on site” order could circulate with no clear origin and be followed.