Why Do People Loot?

I watched all the Chile “looting” footage I could find yesterday. It was hard to know what I was looking at, as it always is when you are watching disasters from afar—and often even when you are right there. I mostly saw people carrying water, diapers, sacks of flour and other necessities. I saw young men playing Robin Hood, throwing paper towels and toilet paper rolls from storefront balconies to older women waiting, arms uplifted, below.

Not to say that these people are wrong—or right. Just to say, I don’t know either way. I do think looting is happening, but it is equally clear that the reporting of the looting is somewhat more righteous than it probably should be.

What is looting? Is it the taking of property after a disaster? If so, then was it looting when some World Trade Center evacuees on 9/11 broke into soda machines and distributed water to people in the stairways? What about when civilians took water trucks in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and drove around neighborhoods distributing clean water? Where is the line?

The one consensus seems to be what I call the “plasma TV test.” If people are taking TVs, then that, we can all agree, is probably looting. Especially if they are fancy TVs! You see this pattern after most big disasters. First comes the catastrophe, then comes TV people talking about the generalized fear of looting—then comes a strange and disconcerting looting montage: footage of people carrying groceries out of stores, hearsay about violence and, finally, reports of stolen plasma TVs.

Here is one of the many plasma-TV stories to come out of Chile. (Notice the photo, which features a disheveled and frightened young man carrying…diapers.)

As I’ve written before, looting reports usually turn out to be exaggerated after most disasters. Looting happens, and it is damaging to the relief effort and the social fabric, but it rarely represents more than a drop in the bucket compared to the damage inflicted by the disaster itself.

As Ilan smartly pointed out in a comment to the previous post, we just don’t know much about disaster looting. What we do know is mostly from the U.S., which may or may not be relevant in this case. The scant research that has been done outside the U.S. suggests that it only happens in a major way when three other pre-existing conditions are met:

1. Dramatic disparity between rich and poor.
2. High levels of petty crime and gang activity.
3. An ineffective and corrupt police force.

We will one day (hopefully) get better information about what happened in the streets after Chile’s earthquake. Until then, my strategy is to listen to all the reports I hear with one question in the back of my mind: “How do you know that?” In other words, did you see it?

For example, when reading this Washington Post story today (which also includes the plasma TV claim. Check!), I had to wonder about this line:

“...the pillaging was carried out largely by poorer Chileans.”

Really? How do you know? Did you do a random sampling of the pillagers and survey them about their income levels? Or are you making that conclusion based on how the 27 looters you saw looked—what they were wearing, how they spoke, etc.? Either way is OK, but I’d love to know.