Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Haiti: looting, or self-relief?

The news is reporting increasing anger and frustration among the populace of Haiti. With the immensity of the damage, the slow speed of the relief efforts, and the widespread poverty and poor infrastructure to begin with, can people be blamed?

I'm not sure what to make of the skimpy reports of looting. I imagine there is some theft of semi-luxury items, but who could blame people for taking food and water from stores that would declare total insurance losses anyway?

This is the Merriam-Webster definition of "looting":

1 a : to plunder or sack in war 
   b : to rob especially on a large scale and usually by violence or corruption
2 : to seize and carry away by force especially in war

I'm not sure the word "loot" is quite the right one to describe what is probably happening in Haiti.

I wonder how much the use of this word is bound up with images of race and poverty?

It may be too early to really know, but there were some interesting comments on this issue after Hurricane Katrina:

New Orleans, Looted
By Bidisha Banerjee Posted Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005, at 7:26 PM ET
New Orleans, looted: Bloggers ponder the moral dilemma of looting in New Orleans. Some of the most corrosive disapproval comes from the city's residents. "I'm all for grace. But it's very difficult not to hope they get shot on sight," writes Otter's Burrow, a medieval literature Ph.D. displaced by the hurricane. It's Just the Perspective's Frank, another evacuee, is even more abrasive: "I mean, there's actual video of these animals running around with handfuls and basketfuls of stuff they've stolen from stores...many of them laughing about it. I don't want to come across as racist, but it's the poor black people creating a warzone out of the natural disaster that's plagued the entire city."

Much of the talk of race, looting, and the media's coverage of it all has been sparked by Flickr user Dustin3000, who posted this screenschot of a Yahoo! page containing two similar photos with very different captions. Tech blog Boing-Boing's Xeni Jardin explains: "The images were shot by different photographers, and captioned by different photo wire services. The Associated Press caption accompanying the image with a black person says he's just finished 'looting' a grocery store. The AFP/Getty Images caption describes lighter skinned people 'finding' bread and soda from a grocery store." Many are taking the captions as an unambiguous marker of racial bias in the media. Ramblings of a Tainted Mind's jadedmyrrhmaid believes, "Now maybe they did ask these people where they got the stuff, and it doesn't much matter at this point, everything may as well be eaten before it goes bad....but it does make the press look like assholes." Bol at hip-hop blog Mindset of a Champion, asserts: "The message here is clear: A white man's property rights is greater than a jig's life." Stone-Bridge's Huitzil, a Texan, shares similar concerns about media coverage. He says that most people seem to be taking necessities, and that the looting is justified "since the Corps of Engineers does not seem to have had an actual plan in place to deal with levee failure."

Law professor Ann Althouse has iniated a more nuanced discussion of the ethics of looting. "It's almost an invasion of privacy to photograph people doing bad things when they are in such a state. But we've got to also feel sympathy for the rest of the people who are stranded there and frightened by a breakdown in order," she claims.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Wave to us!