Is it racist to report on looting in Haiti?

Why the "it-isn't-looting-if-you're-starving" argument is particularly lame

Published January 19, 2010 6:20PM (EST)

Criticism has been growing over the last few days over the Dread Mainstream Media's coverage of sporadic violence and looting in Port-au-Prince.

While most print and broadcast media have been careful to emphasize the word "sporadic," there have been reports of looting of stores and homes, tussles over food at distribution spots, gangs of young men wielding machetes walking down city streets and a few cases of vigilante justice where citizens have turned on looters and lynched them on the spot.

Most of the blogo-punditry has deemed any coverage or mention of looting or lawlessness as "racist," hearkening back to shoddy, race-tinged reporting in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Theoretically, these critics would prefer the media make no mention of post-disaster violence and focus exclusively on the stories of people coming together in the face of catastrophe. Moreover, they'd prefer a narrative of lawlessness as a socially acceptable response to a desperate situation.

"When someone is starving or dying of thirst and they steal food or water, it isn't 'looting,'" writes Tom McNalley in the Huffington Post in a representative argument. "It's 'surviving.' This is especially true after a devastating natural disaster. (And more so when your country is about 100 degrees year round.)"

The "it-isn't-looting-if-you're-starving" argument strikes me as particularly lame. Stuff doesn't stop belonging to someone else just because there's an emergency and you need it more.

Don't get me wrong: If I were in Haiti right now, I'd be walking out of the nearest demolished supermarket with a bra full of Spam and canned peas ... but I wouldn't argue it was some egalitarian redistribution of goods.

This is the language we have to work with: To loot means to plunder, and to plunder means to seize wrongfully or by force. As Marc Herman of Global Voices notes, the Germans call it pluendern. The French say pillage. Spaniards call it saqueo. In every language, the word "looting" carries within it the terrible breakdown of civic order.

And this is exactly why the media needs to keep covering it. Because lawlesslness is indicative of a much larger, more critical issue than racism.

As we approach one full week since the disaster, the failure of international rescue operations to mount a coordinated response is growing more glaring by the hour.

While individual groups are doing extraordinary work, their efforts are diluted by the inability of the Haitian government, the United Nations and the United States to come together and get a command-and-control system in place that gives the people of Haiti the security, the food, the water and the medical care they need to get through this disaster.

Yes, the situation is complicated and, yes, the challenges are huge. But a week after the earthquake, aren't people still hungry, still thirsty, still walking around piles of unburied bodies and nursing unattended wounds? Aren't there huge piles of food still sitting at the airport? Aren't roads still obstructed? Are there no centralized clinics and feeding stations set up throughout the city?

So I say to the people of Haiti: Loot away. Wave those machetes. Set stuff on fire. Walk up to Anderson Cooper and pop him in the chops. (Trust me, CNN will replay it 10 times an hour.) Do whatever you have to do to scare those in charge into helping you.

By Heather Michon

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