The hysterical rhetoric about looting

This might not be a popular thing to say, but – could we have some sanity in the way we talk about looters?

Ipswich politicians:

Reports of looting in Ipswich have angered Ipswich mayor Paul Pisasale and councillor Paul Tully, who called for harsh penalties for looters.

Cr Pisasale earlier today said: “If I find anybody looting in our city they will be used as flood markers.”

And Cr Tully said immediate jail-time was the “only option” for looters.

“I’ve just heard that police are investigating three men in a canoe on suspicion of looting houses in some of the worst hit parts of Goodna,” Cr Tully said.

“[These people are] scum of the earth.

Seriously? The “scum of the Earth”? I can think of a hell of a lot more serious offences than theft in a disaster area. For one thing, it’s a crime against property, not against the person. I’d be very interested to hear how Cr Tully ranks offences, from least serious to most serious, and if looting isn’t below crimes of violence, I’d be very surprised (and appalled).

This is the kind of hysterical rhetoric that spurs violent mobs, Paul. It’s pretty irresponsible.

He goes on to claim:

“The residents I’ve been speaking with at our evacuation centres today are despondent and the thoughts that their properties are being looted are devastating.”

Really? More devastating than the thought of them being totally destroyed by the waters or even of loved ones being lost?

I guess what sticks in people’s craw is the sense that looting is kicking someone when they’re down – but is it really? Is it really vastly more serious than theft or burglary in normal times? If some desperate person takes something from your house to feed themselves before it’s destroyed by the water anyway, are you any worse off?

It seems doubtful that, for the flood victims, looting is really their biggest problem. In fact, it’s much more of a threat for insurance companies – given that most household insurance policies don’t cover the rising waters, but do cover theft. In terms of being able to be assisted to rebuild, being able to make a claim, wouldn’t you in fact be in a better position if your stuff is stolen by a looter than wrecked or taken by the water?

Meanwhile, in Brisbane, residents were putting their lives on the line to keep watch for looters:

Local women Marlene and Debra say they did not sleep on Wednesday night as they patrolled the submerged street with torches after seeing suspicious-looking people checking out houses.

Well, they’ve found an empowering task for themselves. If you can’t get angry about the clouds, damned non-responsive impersonal masses of water vapour taunting us all from above, it’s always handy to have some actual human villains on which to vent your frustration and anger. Although what are they planning to do if they find someone in a neighbouring house nicking stuff? Apprehend them? This sort of vigilantism seems to me to be an altogether wonky assessment of risk vs worth – personally confronting someone apparently committing a crime against which the state is now ramping up the hysteria, seems likely to escalate matters to violence. And for what? To save an insurance company from having to replace someone’s TV?

(Marlene and Debra are apparently uninsured, but clearly they would qualify for serious post-flood assistance to rebuild if their possessions are lost or damaged.)

Of course, it’s easy to for someone a thousand miles from the floods, with no property presently at risk, to say all this, and the human need in times of crisis to direct anger against actual humans who can be punished (until we figure out the technology for a cloud prison AND THEN WE’LL GET OUR REVENGE) is quite understandable.

But let’s hope cooler heads prevail when things calm down and such people eventually come before the courts.

UPDATE: Queensland police remind people that there’s a double penalty for looting.

Commenters go nuts with the revenge fantasies.

UPDATE #2: It’s presently behind the Crikey paywall, but this post from today’s Daily Email makes a similar point:

While the media are getting caught up reporting widespread looting in the aftermath of the Queensland floods, research shows that looting is usually non-existent after a natural disaster — and that media reports of looting are putting lives at risk…

But there is a large and increasing body of research, here and overseas, showing that after natural disasters looting is extremely rare — and that rumors, panic, and media reports blow it all out of proportion…

The panic that rumours and reports of looting can generate poses a very real danger to communities hit by natural disasters. According to “Common Misconceptions About Disasters”, “one reason people refuse to evacuate in disasters is to protect their property … and over-zealous police and security guards managing roadblocks set up to keep looters out sometimes prevent the entry of legitimate disaster-response personnel”. The Sydney Morning Herald and ABC have carried stories about people refusing to evacuate homes because of fears of looting — putting them in real danger. Ironically, the rumors of looting cause more harm than the looting itself.

And, as I argued:

Dr Gordon says there will always be criminal elements in society, but these elements will commit crimes in times of normalcy and disaster — and natural disasters do not drive more people to crime. Hence, much of the looting phenomenon is actually just ordinary property crime, that would occur with or without disaster conditions. “We have in any community a certain number of people who will make their living by stealing other people’s property. What we’ve got is a steady state of human characteristics after the disaster as well as before. But the tabloid media are saying, ‘something extraordinary is happening, look, people are stealing stuff, aren’t people terrible’ — but people do this all the time.”

It’s good not to be completely alone.

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43 responses to “The hysterical rhetoric about looting

  1. “If some desperate person takes something from your house to feed themselves before it’s destroyed by the water anyway, are you any worse off?”

    The article you linked to described three men being charged with stealing boats. Were they going to eat them?

    No seriously, these people are scumbags and I think what pisses people off the most is the sheer injustice of it all.

    “In terms of being able to be assisted to rebuild, being able to make a claim, wouldn’t you in fact be in a better position if your stuff is stolen by a looter than wrecked or taken by the water?”

    Not sure how you come to that conclusion Jeremy and yes, if I found someone going through my possessions, I’d feel like kicking their arse too.

  2. You have not got a clue here Jeremy.
    The fact that its a crime against property misses the point and that is that looters are an affront to the community cohesion that we have been seeing in the wake of this disaster. Its like kicking someone when they are down or violating the dead utterly reprehensible. People are understandably very emotional about such things and they naturally expect the law to act accordingly .

  3. Deary me, Jeremy, I know you’re not posting my comments any more but this is almost self-parody.

    In any case, I thought communities pulling together was supposed to be a good thing: Marlene and Debra are helping their neighbours. It’s a shame that they’re not allowed to do it with a shotgun.

  4. I’m sure I’d “feel like kicking their arse”, too. But that doesn’t mean it’s rational or appropriate to call for them to be immediately jailed or, worse, incapacitated and used as flood markers. (The men stealing boats – well, maybe they were going back to rescue someone. It is a flood. Who the hell knows?)

    And of course pulling together is a good thing. Vigilantism is not.

    As for Iain – the law should absolutely not “act accordingly” with people being “emotional”. That’s about the last thing it should do.

    Do you understand the difference between defending looters (which I’m not – certainly what they’re doing is a crime that should be punished) and calling for a bit of sanity in the extreme rhetoric about it?

  5. You’re on your own on this one Jeremy.

    As Iain said, there is something especially despicable about those who would use such a disaster as an opportunity to steal from their fellow man. The law should obviously remain dispassionate in all cases, and undoubtedly will, but the people of Queensland are under no such obligation.

    I certainly wouldn’t object to new laws prescribing harsher punishment for looting offences.

  6. Even at the best of times, when it comes to the cops, when you need them in seconds they’re there in minutes.

    Under normal circumstances vigilantism is not a good idea, but in a state of emergency citizens may need to fill the gaps. And there is nothing wrong with disproportionate punishments in certain circumstances pour encourager les autres…

  7. “In terms of being able to be assisted to rebuild, being able to make a claim, wouldn’t you in fact be in a better position if your stuff is stolen by a looter than wrecked or taken by the water?”

    Not sure how you come to that conclusion Jeremy and yes, if I found someone going through my possessions, I’d feel like kicking their arse too.

    The point is if someone loots your water damaged stuff, you’re insured. If it’s just damaged by the flood, the majority of major insurance companies (Allianz, RACV, AAMI) do not cover you for flood damage under buildings or contents insurance. So you get nothing.

    Wonder how many honest, hard-working, Queenslanders are just now discovering that while they thought they were covered for this type of loss, they actually aren’t.

    Big corporations are so awesome.

  8. So, Mondo, you reckon that the drug-addicted burglar who regularly breaks into houses should receive an EXTRA punishment for any offences committed during the floods, when his regular activity becomes “looting”? Why?

    Also, what about situations of desperation where an ordinary person who wouldn’t steal would take something to eat; escape; help a friend because the usual options were not open to him or her? Is that worse than theft in ordinary times?

    And what precisely are Debra and Marlene going to do when they come upon a looter? Doesn’t this rhetoric make it more likely that looters will arm themselves, and the seriousness of the offending will escalate?

  9. So, Mondo, you reckon that the drug-addicted burglar who regularly breaks into houses should receive an EXTRA punishment for any offences committed during the floods, when his regular activity becomes “looting”?

    Yes. Because the crime is more anti-social than it was before – it has acquired an additional element of unacceptableness and deserves additional sanctions.

    Also, what about situations of desperation where an ordinary person who wouldn’t steal would take something to eat; escape; help a friend because the usual options were not open to him or her? Is that worse than theft in ordinary times?

    Well, criminals always argue that they’re desperate, but from a public policy point of view I don’t think that excuse should be a mitigating factor.

    And what precisely are Debra and Marlene going to do when they come upon a looter?

    Apologies for the confusion – I don’t support the vigilante stuff. Shabs will have to defend his faux-tough guy rhetoric.

  10. “Yes. Because the crime is more anti-social than it was before – it has acquired an additional element of unacceptableness and deserves additional sanctions.”

    I don’t see what that additional element of “unacceptableness” is. It’s not like the burglar was already a functioning member of the community; why precisely is being opportunistic during a disaster any worse than being opportunistic at another time?

    Other than that our patience and tolerance has already been exhausted and we’re at our wits’ ends, which explains our gut feeling about it but doesn’t justify the conclusion that the offence is actually worse.

    “Well, criminals always argue that they’re desperate, but from a public policy point of view I don’t think that excuse should be a mitigating factor. “

    Have to disagree with you – necessity is a full defence; and if an offence like theft is committed with good reason (I was trying to get food for my family or escape or whatever) of course that should mitigate – compared, for example, with people just nicking stuff out of naked, profiteering greed.

  11. jordanrastrick

    I’m actually partially in agreement with Jeremy here.

    On the one hand, putting aside for a moment the genuine increase in psychological anguish when people violate the “everyone pulls together in times of disaster” norm, there is I think a legitimate argument for increased punishment of theft in these circumstances. It is a question of fundamental public order – its much harder for the state to enforce the law during a disaster, so it is I think it makes sense that it may need to increase punishments as an added deterent against people taking advantage of the situation. Or to put it another way, committing a crime in such circumstances is a genuinely aggravated offence, because it undermines the rule of law more than the same act would outside of the context of a disaster.

    However, that kind of reasoning applies more to purely opportunistic looting – taking someone’s TV or Stereo with a view to using or selling it after the emergency ends. Taking food, medicine, flashlights etc in a situation where the property is not being used by its rightful owners, and it may be very difficult to obtain such goods legitimately, I think is actually a less rather than more serious offence.

    And vigilantism as a subsitute for real justice is always a bad idea. Looters are not a danger to anyone’s life or limb; there’s no compelling justification for punishing them extra-judicially, although given stretched police resources a citizen’s arrest or two before turning them over to the authorities probably wouldn’t go astray. Looters may be terribly unpopular, just like arsonists, terrorists, child molesters etc; but they are still entitled to due process.

  12. “It is a question of fundamental public order – its much harder for the state to enforce the law during a disaster, so it is I think it makes sense that it may need to increase punishments as an added deterent against people taking advantage of the situation. “

    I can see the sense in that argument, although I’d also point out that concentrating too much on general deterrence tends to result in chucking people unnecessarily in prison thereby turning redeemable people into more serious criminals and costing the taxpayer a fortune (prison is very expensive). Insomuch as it deters, it could reduce crime – but insomuch as it it doesn’t take into account the importance of rehabilitation, it could – and, I’d argue, is more likely to – increase it.

  13. why precisely is being opportunistic during a disaster any worse than being opportunistic at another time?

    OK – in the end I suspect this will simply come down to opinion – but my view is that it is worse because it involves the preying on people who inhabit a category of the especially helpless. As Jordan notes above, it is a “genuinely aggravated offence”. You may not see that as deserving of additional punishment, but I do.

    Have to disagree with you – necessity is a full defence; and if an offence like theft is committed with good reason (I was trying to get food for my family or escape or whatever) of course that should mitigate

    Fair enough – but in pointing this out you have sort of undermined your initial objection. There’s no reason why necessity shouldn’t also be made a full defence against the crime of looting. Then it’s only the “naked, profiteering” looters who will be subjected to the increased sanctions.

    Problem solved.

  14. Necessity already is a full defence – but, for obvious reasons, it’s very tightly and strictly defined. I’m talking about offending that’s not strictly “necessary” – other alternatives might exist, or be possible to explore, but the person (who is, like the victim who owns the property, sorely tested) takes the easier option in order to achieve an understandable aim.

    That’s still an offence, they’re still guilty of theft or “looting” – but it’s clearly substantially different on the facts to someone just stocking up on other people’s valuables for profit.

    As for the “preying on people who inhabit a category of the especially helpless” – does it necessarily make their situation worse? If their house has been destroyed by flood already, does it make much difference that someone’s stolen their video-camera? Particularly if that means it can be claimed on insurance as theft rather than just damage by rising water?

  15. Well I assume there would still be sentencing discretion for the judge, and that hopefully the judge would take factors like those you have raised above into account. I’m not proposing mandatory or minimum sentences for looters, only discretion to apply harsher penalties where warranted.

    If their house has been destroyed by flood already, does it make much difference that someone’s stolen their video-camera?

    Well, yes, because now they don’t have a video camera or a house.

    But really – think about what you’re saying. The looters obviously aren’t taking things destroyed by the floods (like video cameras), they’re stealing valuables that have survived the floods (like boats, jewlery etc). Treating them as modern day Robin Hoods is a bit silly.

    I’m not sure that your hypothetical makes a lot of sense.

  16. Using force to defend one’s property has always been recognised as a legitimate right, nothing faux tough guy about it. But that’s not the issue here.

    Is feeding a drug addiction a legitimate “necessity” defence? I needed my fix so I stole that TV?

  17. No. Necessity has a very specific meaning in law, and that would not qualify.

    We’re talking about mitigating factors relating to the offence (if it was necessity, there’d be no mitigation required – it’s a full defence). But I don’t think a junkie’s addiction-fuelled thefts are suddenly worse when a state of emergency’s declared.

    “Using force to defend one’s property has always been recognised as a legitimate right”

    People like you might argue that, but that view is far from universally-accepted. Just out of interest, what do you think you’d be entitled to do to defend your home (property as opposed to person; obviously defending a person is a fundamentally different issue) from a burglar under the law in, say, Victoria?

    “Treating them as modern day Robin Hoods is a bit silly.”

    Of course I wasn’t doing that. I was never saying these were good people or that what they were doing was a good thing.

    I’m just calling for some sanity in the way it’s treated. There’s a scale of bad things people can do, and I’m not convinced that looting is all that much higher on it – it being “looting” just because a state of emergency’s been declared – than any other kind of theft.

  18. Using force to defend one’s property has always been recognised as a legitimate right

    Perhaps, but using excessive force is not. And besides, vigilantism is about using force to defend other people’s property.

    The stupidity of allowing vigilantes armed with shotguns, as in your deluded fantasy, really doesn’t even require refuting since it is obvioulsy an awful idea.

  19. In Victoria? Probably very little. But “I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by six” is not a bad rule in practice.

  20. I was never saying these were good people or that what they were doing was a good thing.

    Yeah – sorry – the Robin Hood analogy was a stretch. But you did say that their looting would leave their victims in a “better position”, which I think is also a stretch.

  21. “The men stealing boats – well, maybe they were going back to rescue someone. It is a flood. Who the hell knows?”

    The police know. They’ve been charged with looting. I don’t think they were a couple of SES volunteers commandeering a boat to rescue some poor stranded soul. They were a couple of shitheads stealing for their own gain. You call it opportunistic, most would call it fucking low.

  22. You don’t know the full circumstances of that theft any more than I do.

    But of course it’s low. It’s the level of lowness, and just how psychotic we need to be in seeking vengeance for it, that we’re debating here.

  23. Meh. I come down on the fence. Crimes against property are against the person (as something being property does imply an owner), but to imply that this taking place during a natural disaster somehow requires punishment to be increased by an order of magnitude doesn’t really stand up logically, for mine. I don’t know to what extend sentencing for crimes against propety take into account the individual’s circumstances. Anyone with legal training here, that might be able to shed some light?

  24. It takes into account the various circumstances of the offence, including the circumstances of the victim and the circumstances of the offender.

  25. “Anyone with legal training here, that might be able to shed some light?”

    Isn’t Jeremy a lawyer?

    “You don’t know the full circumstances of that theft any more than I do.”

    No, I don’t but I don’t think the police are in the habit of charging people who are using a boat legitimately with looting. From the Redland Times:
    “Whilst the dingy was being towed to the Brisbane Water Police base one of the men, 37, jumped into the Brisbane River.”

    I don’t think innocent men dive into a swollen river to evade police.

  26. I’m not suggesting they’re “innocent” or that they had the dinghy “legitimately”. I’m not suggesting that they can use the full defence of “necessity”.

    I am suggesting that there might, nonetheless, within the context of them being guilty of a crime, be mitigating factors.

    (For those who are confused, a mitigating factor is not a defence.)

  27. Perhaps there may be no mitigating factors beyond being an arsehole. There doesn’t have to be mitigating factors.

  28. Perhaps, perhaps not. That’s the point of having actual courts and hearing evidence before rushing to judgment.

    Meanwhile, check the update #2 to the post. Crikey had an excellent piece today about how the hysteria-driven panic about looting is what actually puts lives at risk.

  29. Good point – hadn’t thought of that.

    But it makes sense. Everything is disrupted. Everything.

    So Fred the Burglar, who does his usual rounds in his car, suddenly has no access, unless he also keeps a boat handy for such circumstances.

  30. You’re on your own on this one Jeremy.

    Seconded.

    Of all the things you had to write about in such a devastating tragedy you had to get pedantic about this issue?

    Looting during a natural disaster is worse because it diverts police resources away from doing things like protecting lives. And why presume that things looters are grabbing that are going to be destroyed anyway? That’s rather presumptuous.

  31. All comments on this issue are irrational and motivated by emotion. Looting is wrong, but the media does get a big kick out of over-reporting it for their own evil purposes. And that is all Jeremy’s point was. I’ve been out in the floods 3 days now and have heard some ridiculous nonsense come out of perople’s mouths – all of it incited by Channel’s 7 and 9. I’ve been out in the floods 3 days now and not seen a single incident of looting nor anything that could even vaguely pass as suspicious. All I’ve seen is people helping people.

  32. “Of all the things you had to write about in such a devastating tragedy you had to get pedantic about this issue?’

    You’re kidding – you’re going the “surely there are more important things” route?

    The hysteria about looting is likely to cost lives, and it’s something that’s being widely indulged-in at the moment. It’s an entirely appropriate thing to blog about.

    Or do I have to publish some homilies about how terrible the tragedy is and how heroically the community is banding together before I can do that?

    “Looting during a natural disaster is worse because it diverts police resources away from doing things like protecting lives. “

    Well, not if they stop over-reacting to it and recognise that protecting lives should come first.

    “And why presume that things looters are grabbing that are going to be destroyed anyway? That’s rather presumptuous.”

    I assumed nothing of the sort. I was giving an example of “looting” that was hardly the “scum of the Earth”.

    (And you’ll never guess which two idiots have, as predicted, published fatuous rants misrepresenting this post as if it were saying looting was okay.)

  33. Jeremy, don’t you realise that it’s actually the police using the media to beat up the anti-looting message? And that the reason they’re doing that is to scare potential looters away? It’s called preventive PR.

  34. Rubbish, Ray. Did you read the second update? Read it then come back.

    And if the police were involved in the beatup, then they’d be being profoundly irresponsible. Check the people who’ve been encouraged to resort to vigilantism by the exaggerated fears – how’s that going to save lives? Check the people who’ve died staying home to defend property from looters – and drowned trying.

    The fact is that there are hardly any “looters”, and most “looting” is just ordinary crime that would’ve taken place irrespective of the disaster. The fact is that it’s a crime (and, despite your moronic friends dishonestly suggesting otherwise, I’ve never suggested it isn’t) but it’s still just a property crime. There’s a hell of a lot worse out there.

    Pretending otherwise to sell papers is really dangerous, and will get people hurt – or killed.

  35. Okay I read it (again). Your point is? There’s nothing there to say that the police are not the source of the media reports regarding looting. Where do you think the media gets its police news items from? That would be from the police – or do you think they just make it up for the hell of it? Look, it’s common practice for police to use their own media arm to push a particular message via the press. In this case the message they wanted to put out was “don’t loot” … and, judging by the relatively low incidence of looting in Queensland, it seems to have worked. You’re shooting the messenger.

  36. Oh, how convenient. What I’ve said is the case – looting is not a serious problem, and the rhetoric is way out of proportion to the threat, and in fact, by encouraging people to put their lives at risk defending property, increases the threat of serious loss to actual people – suddenly becomes your justification for the insane rhetoric!

    Perhaps, on that theory, we should threaten to shoot space aliens on sight, those inhuman scum. And then, when no aliens appear, we can rest assured our tough rhetoric worked!

    And where do I think the media get their news from? Supposedly journalists talking to people. The first extreme remarks about the looters I saw weren’t from police, they were from a couple of grandstanding councillors in Ipswich. Did you read the post?

  37. The “anyone with legal training” was intended to be sarcastic, BTW. Apologies for looking gormless.

  38. I love your work Jeremy, but my point is that it’s important to choose your subject matter during adversity, because you could be seen to be heartless (as opposed to being it, which I know you’re not).

    I’ve been impressed with the efforts of the community, including the trade union movement, in this time of heartache.

  39. Oh, those people determined to represent me as maliciously as possible definitely would (and did) portray this post as me being heartless. They pretended I was saying looting was okay, that I was defending it, that I was attacking the victims for their language (as opposed to the politicians and media I was actually talking about).

    But they’d have done that even if I’d published twenty posts beforehand telling Queenslanders how brave they are and reminding them (in case they didn’t know) how terrible the flood was.

    If I don’t bang on repeatedly about the terribleness of the disaster on a blog about political discussion, it doesn’t mean I don’t recognise it or don’t care.

  40. “If I don’t bang on repeatedly about the terribleness of the disaster on a blog about political discussion, it doesn’t mean I don’t recognise it or don’t care.”

    FWIW Most people do understand that.

  41. BTW I have friends up there in brisse now. Members of my brigade, helping with the clean up. (I really feel like a bastard and wish I was with them, but I have responsibilities to other people here that I can’t avoid. Sorry Brissie people, maybe I’ll get a chance on the next crew next week.)

    Speaking to ’em I brought the looting thing up and they said they’d heard nothing and no real ref to it. As of yet. If the press covered every story of stranger helping stranger up there the way it does reports of looting then we’d never see anything but good vibes on the tv coverage. Cos overwhelmingly people have been .. well people.

    In fact I think alot of people who haven’t lost too much are stoked this happened. In the early part of the week the footage showed strangers helping strangers, and not just that, they looked happier than most people ever do on tv. Some of them were interviewed with big goofy grins and happy faces. They were saying things like “yeah we don’t know who half these people are that are helping us and that we are helping.” And they were stoked about it.

    I really wonder how many people are there that are grateful for this flood because it gave them a chance to act open heartedly and unselfishly without the need for “looking out for No1”. You know cos they got to do the opposite of looting.

    Thats the real story of this flood – thats the one the MSM should be focusing on. Are they incapable of holding a mirror up to society without using a negative light?

    I do get the anger at looters. (If there are any.)

    Its understandable cos we all know how low it is to take such advantage of such vulnerable, disadvantaged people.

    Its a pity the only time certain people can feel this way about the vulnerable and disadvantaged is in that sort of context. Suggests to me they aren’t so much concerned with the plight of the victims as punishing someone.

  42. Pingback: Much more like “scum of the Earth” | An Onymous Lefty

  43. “You’re on your own on this one Jeremy.”

    No he’s not.

    “As Iain said, there is something especially despicable about those who would use such a disaster as an opportunity to steal from their fellow man”

    Yes but unless one was being hysterical they would realise that whilst looting is an opportunist, shitty thing to do it isn’t in the same league as assault, rape, murder and child molestation. It’s up there with ‘people smuggling’ ie the media and pollies like to overreact!

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