It's more than semantics


Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Driving in my car this afternoon, I heard an NPR reporter say some people in Port-au-Prince have had neither food nor water since the earth shook two full days ago.  So I find the words in the lead story on The New York Times web site this afternoon grating: “The national police had all but vanished, and officials reported looting at a collapsed grocery store.”

From all I’ve heard and read, the people of Haiti thus far have been remarkably restrained, helping their neighbors, desperately trying to move concrete with their hands as corpses lie in the streets. I heard another NPR report of a man whose family had survived but who was seeking out those who were suffering to console.

So a question: Is it looting to feed yourself and your family?  Is it looting to take food that will rot in time from the shelves or floor of a “collapsed grocery store?”

Shame on the officials. And shame on the Times. One man’s looter is another’s humanitarian or mother or father.  I’d urge the media to choose their words with care.

About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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15 Responses to It's more than semantics

  1. andylevinson says:

    No, if you want to see REAL looting…take a look inside OUR national Treasury Dept and see what the REAL looters did their….

    What we are sending Haiti is less than is loss by evaporation every day in Washington, D.C.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      You’re right Andy. No one seems to look at the bonuses the bank executives are rewarding themselves with taxpayer money as “looting.” But it is. Then, in perfect bad taste, they go to Capitol Hill and compare the collapse of the housing market to a natural disaster. Of course, it was their reckless banking policies that set up the housing bubble and its subsequent collapse. When hurricanes (and earthquakes) strike, the poor, in particular, are at their mercy.

  2. cliveshome says:

    HAITI IS DYING. and people look at looting. please be-real.

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  4. Jerry Lanson says:

    ‘Giving you reasons to think twice.’ I like that Clive. As for Haiti, instead of worrying about ‘looted’ grocery stores, the world should be scrambling to respond to the haunting and fading echo of those still screaming beneath the rubble. It’s gruesome, as many fine reports from the ground have portrayed. It’s just when news falls into the domain of experts tallying “stuff” that it becomes inhumane and, in this case, offensive.

  5. Facebook User says:

    Looting after a disaster is when the police go to Wal-Mart to stock up on DVD players and Timberland boots (Hurricane Katrina).

  6. joseph27 says:

    I completely agree with the need for the media to choose words carefully when describing the events in Haiti. Some reporters have been bleating about the delay in getting essential services/goods to the masses. Do they not understand physics–that you can’t land cargo planes on top of other planes, you cannot speed delivery trucks on roads blocked by countless tons of debris, and you can’t pass out food/water/medicine to the people until you can physically get it to them. DONATE, and leave the details to the people busting their asses to help.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      A good point, Joseph. I just heard a United Nations spokesperson on NPR. She made the point that it’s one thing to send instantaneous pictures, another to move around tons of food, water, medicine and supplies. The task seems truly overwhelming. Relief agencies, she says, are trying to feed 2 million people. Some 300,000 are homeless. That said, every hour is critical. Sometimes people do respond better when a spotlight is aimed at them. That is the media’s job.

  7. Taking something when it does not belong to you is called stealing. taking it during riot-like conditions is called looting. These people may be doing it to survive but its looting pure and simple. even putting a “humanitarian” slant on it doesn’t means its right.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      Let me ask you a question Richard. If your kid hadn’t eaten in two days and the “collapsed grocery store” across the street had food, would you consider yourself on better footing morally to feed your children or to let them starve while the food across the street rotted? Taking TV sets from an electronics store is looting. Take food from a place where dthe food is doing no one any good? You decide. This I remember from Katrina. When a picture came over the wires of a white mother in a store to get food for her kids, she was not identified as a looter. When … but then, you know where I’m going with this.

  8. libtree09 says:

    Your posting has triggered some personal memories; one vague and the other provoking an confession.

    In one of my attempts at a college education a short story or short novel was mandatory, maybe the author was Shirley Jackson, can’t really remember; it was a simple story that had a large impact on my view of the world and morality.

    The story was this: A stranger happens upon a charitable family with a failing farm. A seemingly simple man, he works for food, he works hard, he introduces them to cheese-making, he shows them the way to prosperity. He is gentle and saves the family without asking for anything in return. The man becomes a savior.

    Another stranger comes to the farm and claims the stranger is wanted, he is a killer, that they are in fact in danger from this man who is guilty of absolute sin. The facts of the case are blurred, he may have a good reason to kill or not. The farmer knows the loss of this man may jeopardize his family, his livelihood, his way of life. The farmer’s decision in saving his family is difficult to swallow but it brings to the forefront an idea supported in law and bible and philosophy worldwide, an idea of the sinful, of the unspeakable being justified.

    A confession: I am a criminal. As a child growing up poor in a wealthy city, surrounded by functioning families who could feed and clothe their children, my single mother could not. Single rooms with up the stairs and down the hall shared bathrooms with electric and heat often cut off and dinner consisting of toast with evaporated milk mixed with water and sugar or lentils with spaghetti or Wheaties with tea. Unlike Lincoln I read by candlelight in a huge apartment building. Desperation led to stealing hamburger from the supermarket, learning to stuff rice in my pockets and snatching candy bars. My mother and I went door to door for the march of dimes and gave nothing to the charity.

    At Catholic school my mother could not afford I felt the guilt and came to a simple conclusion: I will not starve and care little for laws that would keep me from surviving. I would lie to my mother about where the food came from, claim a small job or luck or charity. Bit by bit a disintegration of moral truth and character and faith in the world. And a world view that makes me feel closer to the Ghetto struggles than my lawyer neighbors and rich friends.

    The desperate will do desperate things, it is not about morals, it is simple survival something we, in our now secure social safety nets have little understanding.


    Can we be that far from understanding our own natures? Or even our own short history.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      I find this a truly moving post libtree. I for one absolve you any guilt. We live in a society that sees nothing wrong when the boss awards himself 40 times the salary of the man or woman sweating on the line or at the counter, but cries thief to the man who steals food to feed his family. We live in a society that scoffs at those who need state assistance to stay off the street and under shelter but then gladly accepts a disproportionate tax write-off for the mortgage of houses owned, a write-off not extended to the less affluent renter. The well-heeled in our society delude themselves into believing they are the morally righteous by giving to church coffers on Sunday or signing charitable checks worth a few percent of their salaries. Your apparent guilt, to this day, at having stolen to feed your family shows me how deeply felt your morality is. Perhaps you did wrong; perhaps you had to survive. The same can be said of those in Haiti.

  9. Pingback: Don’t call it looting « Dating Jesus

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