We need a another word

Rebecca Solnit argues persuasively in the Nation that it is journalistic malfeasance to report on "looters" in Haiti as if they were opportunistic criminals:

Imagine, reader, that your city is shattered by a disaster. Your home no longer exists, and you spent what cash was in your pockets days ago. Your credit cards are meaningless because there is no longer any power to run credit-card charges. Actually, there are no longer any storekeepers, any banks, any commerce, or much of anything to buy. The economy has ceased to exist.

By day three, you're pretty hungry and the water you grabbed on your way out of your house is gone. The thirst is far worse than the hunger. You can go for many days without food, but not water.[...] So you go out to see if any relief organization has finally arrived to distribute anything, only to realize that there are a million others like you stranded with nothing, and there isn't likely to be anywhere near enough aid anytime soon. The guy with the corner store has already given away all his goods to the neighbors. That supply's long gone by now. No wonder, when you see the chain pharmacy with the shattered windows or the supermarket, you don't think twice before grabbing a box of Power Bars and a few gallons of water that might keep you alive and help you save a few lives as well.

In this circumstance, taking the food and drink you need to survive isn't an excusable offense; it's a duty. Private property was made for man, not man for private property; and what the church calls "the common destination of all goods" becomes a much more immediate consideration when every system of distribution has broken down. Looting is a kind of theft,and the Haitians you see grabbing food and drink from collapsed grocery stores are not thieves; they are desperate human beings left without other resource. So why does it matter so much if journalists call them looters? Because it suggests that the police we see beating and shooting at these people are just doing their jobs, as if enforcing property rights should be any kind of priority after a calamity of this kind. And because it suggests that Haitians are a lawless people making abad situation worse rather than a resourceful people surrounded by death and determined to live.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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