Re: Loot II


I believe that the record will show that, when I took this position in the comments on Thursday, Timothy "My awesome reasonableness is more awesome than your awesome reasonableness" Burke shouted me down with an impressive stream of jargon-laden condescension. I don't blame him. He is awesomely reasonable and I'm an idiot. But still… my feelings were hurt. And, plus, I was right and he was wrong. Or at least I was obviously wrong.

Posted by: pjs | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 11:41 AM
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Oops, I meant, in the last sentence, "...wasn't obviously wrong."

Posted by: pjs | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 11:43 AM
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Some chastened Republicans are still, even at this late date, far too awesomely reasonable for their own good.

Posted by: slolernr | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 12:00 PM
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He is awesomely reasonable and I'm an idiot. But still… my feelings were hurt.

I took the same position as awesomely reasonable Timothy Burke before he did, and felt most people were disagreeing with me, which might theoretically have hurt my feelings, but didn't in the end, in part because TB rode in to back me up.

Posted by: ac | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 12:26 PM
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Is awesomely reasonable his epithet now?

Posted by: washerdreyer | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 12:32 PM
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Which is to say that it's easy to feel like an idiot on an issue that involves serious trade-offs. In this case, people not getting what they need (some dying because of it), and on the other hand, the collapse of civic order. Neither are good things.

The problem with looting (as I see it) is not so much the looting itself, but the consequences of a general lack of order. You can understand someone going to get food, or even champagne, but the problem is that the visible collapse of order also led to criminal gangs taking over the streets, rapes, firing at helicopters, &c. The things no one would condone flow from the things you do.

Posted by: ac | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 12:42 PM
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I'd settle for "reasonably awesome".

Posted by: Michael | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 12:43 PM
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Looting is far from ideal, for the reasons you indicate and more. What annoyed me about Burke's argument was the suggestion that those who were condoning the looting were doing so primarily out of a desire to celebrate the transgressive power of criminality. The point is that these people were (and are) trapped without food and water. Even if help was on the way -- which, it turned out, it wasn't -- they weren't in a position to know that and weren't given any reasons simply to trust that it would be. That's not a knock-down argument in favor of encouraging the breakdown of social order (and it certainly wasn't Wednesday night). But it's a morally serious argument, and the implication -- not from you -- was that it wasn't.

Posted by: pjs | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 12:59 PM
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It seemed like the issue Wednesday night was either "Should the government be concentrating its efforts on stopping looting?" or "Are the right-wing bloggers who are talking about shooting looters assholes?" Maybe some of the dispute comes from sliding back and forth between these two--I'm not sure about a), but the answer to b) is "At least some of them." (The estimable Orin Kerr explains.)

Note also that Bush and McClellan specifically refused to distinguish people who were getting much-needed food and water from abandoned stores from any other kind of looter.

In any case, the reason it was impossible to establish civil order was the same as the reason the rescue was a clusterfuck in every other way--lack of preparation, not enough personnel in the area right away.

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 1:13 PM
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Wow. Everyone see this Drum post about the police deputizing looters to rescue people (or, anyway, get them to the Convention Center)?

Posted by: Matt Weiner | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 1:32 PM
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"Also, as my speculations indicate, plenty of people have "looting" in their minds from day 1, and not just poor people, not just desperate people."

Yes. As soon as I heard about the looting of the plasma TVs, images of Tony Soprano and Christopher Moltisanti popped into my mind.

Posted by: ****** | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 2:12 PM
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I'll quietly note that Carl Schmitt, the great German jurist, became an ardent Nazi precisely because he saw it as the only way to preserve the state-form in the crisis of Weimar.

I'm more of a left-wing/apocalyptic kind of guy, so from my perspective -- yeah, admittedly I enjoy the benefits of social order as much as the next guy, but it's not the be-all end-all. Let them loot -- the supposed "social order" apparently wasn't robust enough to get them out of the fucking city in time, so I think the forces of social order owe them a freebie this time.

Posted by: Adam Kotsko | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 2:26 PM
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No, no, no. My observation that people who were condoning looting were celebrating the transgressive power of criminality was just a snarky cheap shot at the end of a comment. Awesome reasonableness allows for snark kung-fu from time to time.

The awesome reasonableness of my comment was simply this: that some, including pjs, were basically observing that some "looting" was rational appropriation of necessary supplies (the wisdom of crowds, only armed) and that some ought to be a low priority when limited manpower ought to be going to search and rescue. I agreed with the former, noted that some of the non-rational non-necessity looting was indeed a low priority, only that it rebounded negatively on the looter's own judgement. The key thing for me was that what was going systematically underestimated was the fact that just ignoring looting could paradoxically endanger the very things that people claimed to value: search and rescue and saving lives, because looters tend to conflict with each other violently in competing for goods and because they don't tend to stay tightly confined to the acquisition of either necessities or luxuries once they're armed. Which is in fact what happened: when the civil authorities on the ground largely ignored (or even participated in looting), it didn't stay neatly contained to the acquisition of supplies or even stuff like TVs, but metastasized into raiding hospitals and shooting at helicopters. You could argue that the shoot-at-the-helicopters contingent had nothing to do at all with looting--that this was just a contingency of pure lunatics who would have gone nuts whether the cops had been iron-fisted about looting or not, I suppose. But I think there is a relationship of sorts: that there is no way to have a readily discriminate policy of "you can smash windows and loot stores while heavily armed as long as you only take necessities", especially not under these circumstances.

Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 5:17 PM
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Your argument strikes me as reasonable, but not necessarily awesome. You appear to be making two closely related claims.

The first claim is that looting can easily spin out of control. The actions of specific looters will often escalate (from, say, taking abandoned bread from to more serious property crimes), and different gangs of looters can, out of fear or confusion, find themselves responding violently to each other, even if neither group initially intended to set out on a violent rampage. That seems pretty obviously true, but also a fairly trivial point. (I mean that the point you're making is trivial, not that the violence it alludes to is.) No one is arguing that looting is a generally efficient way to distribute resources. The question is whether, in circumstances like this one where no other method of distribution appears to be available, it doesn't represent the least bad option. That question isn't answered by pointing out some obvious problems that it is likely to create (unless those problems are clearly worse than the problems that inspired the looting initially, which doesn't seem close to being the case here).

The second claim you're making isn't trivial – namely, that the threat of violence to which even well-intentioned looting can lead may deter rescue workers, thus preventing the initial problem from being solved. But this claim seems potentially question-begging. That is, whether or not rescue workers are going to be deterred by looting depends crucially on our social understanding of looting. If we think of it as necessarily something only dangerously criminally-minded types would engage in, then, yes, it will have that effect. If, on the other hand, we recognize it as, under certain circumstances, the "rational appropriation of necessary supplies," then rescue workers are less likely to respond in that way. Which is to say: my hunch is that a lot of the more extreme rumors about what was happening on the ground were simply bullshit. To the extent that they did slow rescue efforts, then social hysteria about looting, not the looting itself, is to blame.

Posted by: pjs | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 7:33 PM
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On the first point, you seem to me to downplay the cost to people who are not part of an organized or semi-organized group undertaking redistribution. (Which is sort of what Alameida is observing from another angle that anyone who didn't loot was kind of a sucker). It's not just that gangs may (accidentally or otherwise) clash violently, but that they may become a source of death and suffering to many within the catastrophe zone precisely because they establish ownership of resources and kill or wound those who are outside their informal claim. This is not a hypothetical in the case of New Orleans: this is precisely one of the things that many of the refugees describe as happening in their neighborhoods: being the targets of predation.

My hunch is that your hunch is wrong on the second important point. Look, people taking potshots or lobbing bricks at fire and rescue people in some urban neighborhoods has actually been a problem for decades in this country. It's an understood risk of the job, in fact, to endure (and when possible, secure against) this kind of interference. Why such things happen (keeping in mind that only one person in a neighborhood of thousands might do such a thing) can be talked about in complex terms: it's not incomprehensible irrationality or savagery or what have you.

So given that this already happens in some places on a low-level continual basis, and given that there were quite a few eyewitness reports of shots taken at rescuers, I'd say it's reasonable to trust those reports. It may be hard for Americans or Europeans to grasp this, because it hasn't happened that often here in recent years, but crowds, even small ones, can have a dynamic all their own, and can flash very quickly over to brutal violence against anyone who happens to get in their way, even if that person or group bears them no ill will. I can cite quite a few incidents from West and Southern Africa in the last twenty years that illustrate this. It's easy to say that rescue teams in New Orleans should just have shucked off any preconceived ideas about looting and gone about their business; I think that comes close to saying that being a rescue professional in these circumstances should require a saintly disinterest in one's own health and survival, that you should just ignore the demonstrable possibility that ordinary disorder and looting could very quickly turn on the rescuers. I'm uncomfortable prescribing to those workers the risks they should take with their lives and safety based on a hunch about the social preconception of looting.

Not an awesome view, I agree. Maybe reasonable.

Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 7:53 PM
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Yeah, there's a depressing circularity to this problem. If, as the law and order folks would have it, you go in and start shooting looters, you will thereby prevent people from doing the food, water, and clothing looting that we have all agreed is understandable. Meaning they die of thirst or from drinking fetid water.

The truth here is that looting is going to break out in this situation, no matter what agreement we come on its philosophical and ethical particulars. Rather than taking it as the question, take it as the given. With that given, what is the best way to organize emergency services in a disaster of this proportion?

Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 7:55 PM
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It's not just that gangs may (accidentally or otherwise) clash violently, but that they may become a source of death and suffering to many within the catastrophe zone precisely because they establish ownership of resources and kill or wound those who are outside their informal claim.

Again, though, this is true of gangs even not in times of disaster, and pretty much every major city has problems with gangs. It gets exacerbated during a disaster because everything is exacerbated during a time of disaster. It would obviously be better for everybody involved if it didn't happen, but I think we can reliably predict that it will. So the question isn't really how do we stop it. I doubt we can. The question is how do we deal with it from a harm reduction standpoint.

I don't have any idea what the answer is, though.

Posted by: apostropher | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 8:06 PM
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The point that everyone seems to be missing is that looting should not be necessary. At least, not in such a wide scale as was the case here.

Posted by: tweedledopey | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 8:14 PM
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Those are both good points, although I think the first one may be only part of the story. My understanding is that some looters were distributing resources to non-looters, though, probably there was considerably less of that going on than there was of just full-on predation.

But, I guess, I still don't see what the point of your various points has been (other than reasonableness for reasonableness' sake).

Are you arguing that the two days or so that the media spent obsessing about looting didn't contribute to the rescue workers' reluctance to go in there? I'm not denying that rescue workers were facing very real dangers. Obviously, they were. But my (perhaps wrong) hunch is that those dangers were exaggerated and that an earlier understanding of why the looters were looting might have resulted in less exaggeration.

Are you arguing that no looting was justified? Is your position really that, even in these circumstances, no looting was actually rationally defensible (as opposed to merely motivationally intelligible)? Or are you arguing that, even if you can imagine specific circumstances in which looting might theoretically be justified, the harms potentially caused by even well-intentioned looting are severe enough that we should continue to preserve an absolute anti-looting norm, even at the expense of condemning certain individual cases of justified looting? If you're not taking either of those positions, then what are you saying?

Posted by: pjs | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 8:40 PM
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Yeah, I'm denying that media representations of looting were the main reason for the pace of search and rescue efforts. Look, a lot of the search and rescue people have been saying that things were so hectic and communications so poor that they had to make their decisions more or less on their own. So I don't think they were sitting down and watching CNN and reacting to that. The media representations had a lot of influence on public discourse but I really don't think it affected the judgement calls of people on the scene. There's just reams of reports now that the NO police were more or less completely without access to outside media or communications: whatever they did, they did independently. I think that seems to be the case for most of the rescue operations until about day six or so, when National Guard units whose only knowledge of the area was media reports started filtering in.

My position is that it's a mistake to essentially contrapose looting and public order with the safety, health and rescue of people trapped inside New Orleans, as if these are somehow contradictory concerns. It's all part of the same problem. The answer to the problem, I guess, would be something of a (un)happy medium. Not, "The only thing we need now is a bunch of regular military with itchy trigger fingers" but also not, "Gangs with AK-47s are no concern: let's get those boats out there and save some people, guys!" Not "Kill all the looters" but also not "looting is completely irrelevant". I don't think that's just me being obsessively reasonable again for the sake of being reasonable. I think it's exactly what needed to be done: smart situational judgement. You send out a rescue team, send an armed escort with them. Somebody takes a shot at them, find out where the sniper is and take him out. You see a significant group of men armed, you tell them to stand down or else. You hear from the local hospital that there are armed men outside threatening to break in, you send an armed squad to stop them. Otherwise, you don't bother if you see some guy running away with a TV: you've got other more urgent business. You send in food and water, then make sure you've got some people distributing it fairly and guarding it. Ideally, you even direct and control some of the looting, which apparently the NO cops tried to do the day after the hurricane and got quickly overwhelmed.

That all this wasn't done clearly has to do not so much with a conscious decision by the main authorities on the scene in the first four days, as the fact that those authorities never even got to the stage where they could decide what exactly they were going to emphasize in their approach to the crisis.

Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 09- 4-05 9:28 PM
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One more log to throw on the fire: the NY Times story today on the door-to-door search for people who have remained in their homes (as well as for corpses), combined with a lot of other press reports on those who did not evacuate, makes clear that one among many reasons why poor residents of the city hesitated to evacuate even if they had a chance to was fear that when they returned, everything they owned would be stolen by looters, without any chance of replacement. That's why a dwindling number of poor people are still holed up in houses now: what they have has taken a lifetime to accumulate, and it's often irreplaceable precisely because they've got no resources to replace it with--and at least some of the people the rescuers have talked to say that they've spotted active, organized looting in their own neighborhoods by small armed groups. So here both the prospect and practice of looting is contributing mightily to the problem; it might be one of the reasons some people stayed and died.

Another data point: yesterday a group of five armed men shot at an Army Corps contracting team. Several stories yesterday in the national press interviewing search and rescue teams have a wide range of rescuers reporting that they've been shot at a number of times during operations over the past six days. I think this is not an exaggeration or hallucination that this was a serious issue after the levees breached.

Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 09- 5-05 8:10 AM
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