The ethics of looting

Reports of widespread looting in flooded New Orleans, both by cops and the citizenry, has prompted a discussion of whether it's "moral" or at least ethical, in extreme circumstances, to take what don't belong to you.

One correspondent argues that if a big hurricane is coming, and a property owner runs away to escape the storm, it's perfectly okay for those who remain in the area to grab whatever they can get their hands on. This is because he has "abandoned" his property, and expects it to be destroyed anyway. Sort of like when you leave your garbage on the curb.

This is especially true for those remaining in the area are in dire straits, and _need_ that loot to survive, or care for dependents.

The discussion brought back a 25-year-old memory of mine, when I was fresh out of college and working as a reporter for The Alvin Sun, a small daily newspaper in Brazoria County, Texas. Brazoria County lies just south of Houston, and on the west side of Galveston bay, and has a shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico.

The year I was there, in early August of 1980, we had a "hurricane scare," which means that a monster hurricane was marching across the Gulf of Mexico towards Texas. This was Hurricane Allen, which at some points reached "Force 5" levels, meaning it was nearly as big and ugly as Katrina.

Doing my reporterly duty, I drove over to the nearest National Weather Service office, which was receiving satellite photos of the storm. As I looked at the sequence of photos, it appeared to me (and everyone else there) that the storm's course would take it straight into Texas, landing about halfway between Galveston Bay and Corpus Christi.

The weather guys wouldn't let me borrow those photos, so I took my Pentax camera and managed to take some pretty decent photos of the photos, and went back to report on what I learned. Then I joined several thousand other people in getting the hell out of there -- I stayed the weekend with friends in Austin.

As it happened, while the storm was still about 150 miles from the coast it took a sharp left turn and landed way down in Brownsville, on the Mexican border. Fortunately, it also lost much of its steam by then and so the damage and loss of life was relatively low. Ironically, my "safe haven" in Austin suffered several tornadoes spawned by this storm, although there was no loss of life.

Anyway, somewhat embarrassed at having helped prompt what turned out to be an unnecessary evacuation of Brazoria County, I returned to my rented house the following Monday, and things quickly returned to normal.

So now back in 2005, I'm dealing with a simpleton who thinks that since I "abandoned" my property and could not reasonably expect to recover it, I shouldn't have minded if someone had looted the place in my absence. Well, she didn't really put it that way. I related my story and she just ignored it, just repeating her insistence that if a hurricane is coming and you flee the area, you relinquish any rightful claim to your stuff left behind.

Well, bullshit.

When I fled Hurricane Allen, I had no more way of knowing what would happen to my home than New Orleans shop owners could know what would happen to the shops they left behind. And as it turned out, it wasn't the hurricane itself that has ruined that city, it was the government's poorly-maintained levies' breaking up that flooded the place and created the real disaster.

Sure, if you leave town under such circumstances, you do take a risk that someone might break in and steal your property. You take such a risk any time you leave your property. That doesn't mean you're abandoning your rightful claim to it, and it is arrogant presumption to think so.

If I'd found people looting my house upon my return to Alvin, I would have run the bastards over with my car, since I didn't own a gun in those days. This might not have been exactly legal, but it would have been moral.


Blogger Johnny Lemuria said...

I am not an expert on ethical dilemnas, but there does seem to be two differences between you experience and the experience of the people stuck in New Orleans. For one thing, the hurricane didn't hit you home. Your home, by your account, wasn't flooded or wrecked. It didn't _look_ "abandoned" (using the looks of a property as a criteria for whether you should loot it or not perhaps isn't very defensible, but it is a difference.) For another thing, according to the canned news I've been watchng these last few days, most of the "looting" has been happening at supermarkets and stores. It isn't keepsakes and heirlooms that have been taken, its inventory. This stuff would most probably be ruined anyway, and there was no one there to buy it from.

8:26 AM  
Anonymous Odysseus said...

I think that there are mitigating circumstances that change the character of looting,such as whether or not the property would be salvageable. For example, taking food out of a ruined supermarket that would otherwise spoil in the heat makes no difference to the owner, since the spoilage and the taking have the same effect. I think that those who take the food have an obligation to document the loss so that the owner can make an insurance claim or otherwise make reparations, but if they don't, the impact on the victim is no different than if the food spoiled in place. I would refer to this as survival looting, as the looting is necessary to sustain life and the impact on the victim, or property owner, is mitigated by the circumstances, as opposed to what I would call opportunistic looting, which entails the looting of luxury goods, expensive clothing and electronic toys, none of which are required to sustain life, and which may be salvageable after the crisis. I'd be inclined to permit the former and shoot those engaged in the latter, but that's just me. Since I'm not there and others who have to make the choice are, I'm not going to second guess them.

12:24 PM  

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