Rebecca Solnit is one of my favorite essayists and writers. I first learned about her writing in her brilliant essay on Detroit and then went back to read her books. I spend a car vacation a few summers ago, reading Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics aloud. Her most recent book is A Paradise Built on Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.
This week Solnit published an insightful essay in Guernica titled Covering Haiti: When the Media is the Disaster, specifically looking at a series of photos of “looters” that ran in the LA Times. Very thought-provoking. Below is an excerpt, but read the whole essay here:
We need to banish the word “looting” from the English language. It incites madness and obscures realities.
“Loot,” the noun and the verb, is a word of Hindi origin meaning the spoils of war or other goods seized roughly. As historian Peter Linebaugh points out, “At one time loot was the soldier’s pay.” It entered the English language as a good deal of loot from India entered the English economy, both in soldiers’ pockets and as imperial seizures.
After years of interviewing survivors of disasters, and reading first-hand accounts and sociological studies from such disasters as the London Blitz and the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, I don’t believe in looting. Two things go on in disasters. The great majority of what happens you could call emergency requisitioning. Someone who could be you, someone in the kind of desperate circumstances I outlined above, takes necessary supplies to sustain human life in the absence of any alternative. Not only would I not call that looting, I wouldn’t even call that theft.
Necessity is a defense for breaking the law in the United States and other countries, though it’s usually applied more to, say, confiscating the car keys of a drunk driver than feeding hungry children. Taking things you don’t need is theft under any circumstances. It is, says the disaster sociologist Enrico Quarantelli, who has been studying the subject for more than half a century, vanishingly rare in most 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.
The media are another matter. They tend to arrive obsessed with property (and the headlines that assaults on property can make). 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. Or sometimes the journalists on the ground do a good job and the editors back in their safe offices cook up the crazy photo captions and the wrongheaded interpretations and emphases.
Read Solnit’s whole essay here.