Reports of grocery stores, malls, and Red Cross convoy’s looted in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan has begun. We have seen this again and again, after natural disasters, including those in our own country. This news report highlights the problem in the aftermath.
“Even me, I have no house, I have no clothes. I don’t know how I will restart my life, I am so confused,” an unidentified woman said, crying. “I don’t know what happened to us. We are appealing for help. Whoever has a good heart, I appeal to you – please help Guiuan.”
The Philippine National Red Cross said its efforts were hampered by looters, including some who attacked trucks of food and other relief supplies it was shipping to Tacloban from the southern port of Davao.
Tacloban’s two largest malls and grocery stores were looted, and police guarded a fuel depot. About 200 police officers were sent into Tacloban to restore law and order.
This time it struck me how we use that word looting. Recently I watched a Thai advertisement of a kid who is caught stealing medicine for his sick mother. A nearby vendor pays for the medicine and gives him some soup. Years later the vendor falls sick and ends up in the hospital where the kid, now a doctor, pays the medical expenses.
Is it really stealing when the need is so great, when people are starving and have lost everything? What comes first protecting life or property?
I understand the need to restore order, and the need to make sure everyone gets food. However, how do we characterize people who are starving, have lost everything, and see stores full of clothes and food? This is not to say that every person who breaks a store front window has purely self preservation at heart. Not every person is Jean Valjean, a main character from Les Miserables who was imprisoned for years after stealing a loaf of bread. This interesting article evaluates why we idealize Jean Valjean and yet act like Javert, the policeman who acts to re-imprison Valjean. Why our punitive justice system denies circumstance in favor of security.
A few months ago we were outraged when reports surfaced that the soldiers who helped secure the Westgate mall, in Nairobi, also looted stores. I know that in Uganda many of these soldiers (in addition to most civil servants) are left unpaid for months at a time, while being asked to secure and protect the wealthiest members of the community. This disparity feeds the regions corruption problems. When looting occurs by those sent to protect and secure the charges were dismissed by the parliament, further damaging the military’s public perception.
This article discusses the moral ambiguity and levels of looting after an earthquake in Chile in 2010. It weighs the needs of starving people, with the theft of televisions and expensive appliances.
How can we challenge the hierarchy of property over human life, while still meeting the needs of shop owners and the community? I am reminded of Luke 3:11, “‘If I have two coats, let me give one away.’ (Jesus) said, ‘Do the same with your food.'”
Note: If you are still looking for ways to support the people in south east Asia affected by the Typhoon, including the Philippines and Vietnam, This article from USA Today includes several agencies to give your money and time for the recovery. My favorite is UMCOR, as 100% of your donation will be used in the Philippines.