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