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Dr. Gregory Jantz, Ph.D. Headshot

Looting After a Hurricane: It's Not About the Bread

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Hurricane Sandy has battered the East Coast. In New York City, 375,000 people were ordered to evacuate. Public schools are closed, the transit system shut down, businesses shuttered.

Sandy has been called a "super storm" because it has gobbled up other storm systems along the Atlantic seaboard, creating a storm swath visible from the space station. While many have made preparations to leave, I can only imagine some people are taking a different tact; they aren't preparing to leave, they're preparing to loot. With arguably millions of dollars of merchandise relatively unprotected (except for gale force winds, rain, flooding, tidal surges, etc.), some may conclude the time is ripe for a little shopping.

Looting has become part and parcel of large storms. I remember the stories that came out after Hurricane Katrina of people unabashedly looting stores right in front of National Guardsmen. I also remember seeing video of people wading out in thigh-high floodwaters with armloads of clothing and trashcans full of goods. The collective sentiment of the looters at the time appeared to be all that stuff was up for grabs because of the emergency. Sociologists call this a breakdown in the social order.

I wonder how much of a breakdown in the social order will occur over this latest storm. According to stories I saw just starting to percolate on some Internet sites, people were already tweeting their plans to loot. It wouldn't be the first time. Twitter appears to have been used to coordinate looting in England, even without the cover of a natural disaster. In the U.S., this activity of coordinated, multiple-participant theft is called flash mob robbery or flash rob for short. The tactic is to make sure enough people show up to overwhelm whatever security is on hand or to cause a limited, targeted breakdown in the social order -- long enough for you to take whatever you can.

Interestingly, such a breakdown in the social order did not occur after the Japanese tsunami in 2011. According to one story, people lined up in front of stores "patiently standing" for hours and "despite the line's length everyone remained calm and polite." The juxtaposition of one group of people standing quietly, calm and polite vs. another group of people wracking havoc and grabbing whatever they could is startling and, frankly, disturbing.

As concerning as it is to view the lawlessness and looting that sometimes occurs after a natural disaster, it is even more concerning to realize this kind of activity no longer requires a natural disaster; it merely requires enough people of like mind to connect via social media and decide to take what someone else has.

When I was growing up, I was taught it was wrong to take what didn't belong to me. Period. As I got older, I understood the dilemma of being hungry and stealing bread. But the vast majority of looting I've seen over the past decade since Katrina doesn't seem to me to be about bread. It's about using a breakdown in the social order for personal enrichment at the expense of others.

There are always a plethora of excuses and rationales for the looting after a natural disaster. If it's for bread, I get that. If it's for a flat screen TV or designer jeans or the latest sneakers, I don't. If you overlook a group of people trashing someone else's property because they can, what will you say if the next person they target is you?

Some may look askew at the calm and patiently-waiting Japanese, thinking them foolish for not taking advantage of an opportunity for some personal enrichment. I don't think so. When their society was stretched and stressed by a natural disaster, they didn't turn on each other, they turned to each other. When we don't find a way do the same, we create our own disaster.

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