Diarmuid Breatnach

Reading Salvage The Bones, a well-written novel by Jesmyn Ward, all but the last chapters of which are set in Louisiana during days of the impending hurricane Katrina in 2005, I started thinking about looters.

Looters” is the name usually given to those who sometimes operate in areas in the wake of a disaster, stealing items, occasionally also killing and/ or raping. They are generally reviled in discourses, characterized as savage opportunists taking advantage of misery and breakdown of law and order to prey on the weak and defenceless.

Alleged looters sit handcuffed under police guard in Oklahoma after storm May 2013.  Nearby, neighbours whose homes were destroyed and who accused the men of looting.
Alleged looters sit handcuffed under police guard in Oklahoma after storm May 2013. Nearby, neighbours whose homes were destroyed and who accused the men of looting.


Although “looting” is also used to describe many of the activities of advancing victorious troops on ground won in war (and on occasion too, activities of retreating troops), those troops themselves are never called “looters”. 

Yet plunder of treasure and goods was in fact one of the main reasons for invading forays or war for centuries: the Irish word “creacht” (from which, according to one theory, the colloquial Hiberno-English word “crack as in “the crack was great” — is derived) means, among some other meanings, loot taken from the victims of a raid – in their case, usually from another clan and the loot or “booty” often cattle, the main measure of wealth for centuries in Ireland.

Many Native American tribes raided others for horses and women (and sometimes male slaves). Groups among the Vikings, Saxons and Celts frequently sailed to other lands from which they took away slaves (probably the main booty and external trade goods for the Vikings, who made Dublin one of their slave markets). The hordes of the Mongols, the Vandals, Huns and Goths all raided and looted. They were mainly non-Christian hordes of course and what could one expect of the like?

The Christian Crusades were fought for control over the eastern spice and silk caravan routes and for land but loot was the main prize for the individual soldiers and officers. The first city attacked by the Crusaders was Damascus, a mostly Christian city. Charlemagne, that great soldier of Christendom, invaded Arab Spain in 778 ostensibly to aid three rebellious Arab chiefs against their Arab overlord, the Caliph of Cordova (Córdoba), during which he would also strike a blow against the Muslims; however he took one of his allies hostage (the Arab Governor of Barcelona) and only gave him up to another, the Governor of Zaragoza, a city Charlemagne besieged for a while, for a huge ransom of treasure. Departing then, Charlemagne took what he considered his quickest and safest route with his loot into the lands of his Frankish kingdom and went over the Pyrenees.

But some of his forces had already been near there when they sacked the Basque city of Iruña (Pamplona); in revenge the Basques (possibly aided by Asturians and Occitanians) mauled Charlemagne’s rearguard and killed most of the nobles with them. One of these was Hroudland, military governor of the land bordering Brittany, who was later romanticised as the great warrior Roland who died fighting the Muslims of Spain who threatened the Christian Europe. Unfortunately for this story, the fact is that the Basques, Asturians and Occitanians were …. yes, Christians. They just happened to have good relations with Muslim Spain (the reverse of what they were to have later with its Christian rulers).

 The Shooters

Modern warfare is also fought for loot but not usually by the soldiers in the army. Soldiers in modern armies are paid, as indeed they were in older times but looting is not usually encouraged. Their officers will no doubt turn a blind eye to a trophy, such as a Nazi luger or bayonet or some item of Saddam’s Iraqi Army equipment, but cart or jeep loads of such items would not be tolerated and even less so personal possessions of people in invaded countries.

The Nazi armed forces, despite their apparently rigid “morality”, were a famous exception, with senior officers looting famous paintings, sculptures, gold and diamonds and corruption extending downwards to concentration camp guards. The US and especially the ARVN (the South Vietnamese government forces) invading Cambodia and Laos in 1970 and 1971 respectively were well documented sending back lorry-loads of loot. And the war-band Kurds of Barzani and Talabani, the so-called “peshmergas”, in 2003 swept into Iraqi towns and looted whatever they could — even from hospitals — as the USA invaded. But these are exceptions among modern armies.

So modern wars are not usually fought for loot then, one might think – but one would be wrong. Modern wars were and are certainly fought for loot – rubber, oil, gas, coal, metals and minerals, wood, crops, water, markets – as well as for land, strategic bases and tactical supremacy. The main difference, apart from the loot being of a grander scale in modern warfare, is that it is not the soldiers who will be collecting the loot, nor even the officers, but the capitalists and politicians (often interchangeable terms) who ordered the war. In so far as senior officers may share in the loot, it will not be through their military rank as such but as members of the ruling elite from which they are often drawn or to which they have gained accession.

But these are not called “looters” either, except maybe by people in the occupied or invaded countries and they of course are biased, aren’t they? And maybe by some socialists and communists – but that’s the kind of propaganda statements you might expect from them, right? In fact, the soldiers in modern armies are often required to shoot looters!

A protester shouts at the National Guard standing on duty outside the Ferguson Police Department after the grand jury verdict in the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, November 26, 2014. (photo: REUTERS/Jim Young)
A protester shouts at the National Guard standing on duty outside the Ferguson Police Department after the grand jury verdict in the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, November 26, 2014. (photo: REUTERS/Jim Young)


In the USA, the soldiers shooting looters have usually been the National Guard, or State Troopers. But the police are armed there and they have also shot looters. When it comes to such a situation in Britain, it will probably be the British Army doing the shooting. If it were to occur in the Irish state, it would perhaps be firstly the Armed Response Unit of the Gardaí, who have a number of kills under their belts already (none of them in riot, looting or shootout situations, by the way) but in any large-scale looting scare, it would be the Irish Army. It is doubtful if the FCA would be trusted to do the shooting but they might be called out as guards on some centres and to staff roadblocks. 

Shooting looters might be a bit extreme, especially in countries without a death penalty, but extreme situations require extreme responses, citizens might say. We need someone to stop looters breaking into our homes, stealing our money, laptops and television and maybe killing and raping us into the bargain.


The Looters

Let’s take a look at the looters, for a minute or two. They generally fall into one of two groups: the ones who are opportunistically stealing whatever is easily available without violence to person, on the one hand and those who are prepared to fight, to hurt and possibly even to kill, on the other. Sprinkled across both groups, there are two main motivations: 1) to take food, drink or smaller luxuries such as today would be TVs, Ipads and laptops or 2) to steal large amounts of money, valuable jewelry etc.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, people who were starving and dehyrating and therefore searching destroyed buildings for food and bottled water and soft drink cans were shot by police and National Guardsmen. In Haiti, after the 2010 earthquake, rioting and looting were reported in the western media but strangely, one might think, given the level of poverty of most of the Haitian population, it turned out that actually there had been very little. What there had been were demonstrations of protest against the authorities’ slow response and against opportunists appropriating freshwater sources and selling the water. However, the reports justified the first practical response of Haiti’s strongest neighbour and main backer of its political regime – the sending of US Marines to the island. They of course could shoot looters … and perhaps demonstrators too if they got too numerous and ambitious.

Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans signaling for help
Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans signaling for help

In the wake of a national disaster, the hardest hit are usually those further down the economic scale. The poorer one is, the less possible it would be to get far away from the disaster area and yet be able to eat, drink, wash etc. The less likely too that one’s living quarters are going to be well-built to withstand hurricane, earthquake, flood; the less likely that one has access to alternative power sources, alternative transport, food and water stocks, medicine ….1

So where will people who are without shelter, warmth, food and drink go to find these things? If the emergency relief is sufficient and very quick, most of the disaster victims will go to relief camps and centres. If it is not, or in areas for which such emergency response is difficult to reach, the people are thrown on their own resources. There will be some communal mutual aid but let us not forget we have been discussing areas of poor people – most will have little beyond what they need for themselves and their own families. So what about shops, houses of the rich and those perceived as being better off ….? Of course, their owners will be in no danger if the armed police or troops turn up to shoot the cold, the hungry, the dehydrated, the ill.  

But what about those marauding opportunists, the looters who mainly want money, jewelry, expensive electronic equipment, cars …..? And murderers and rapists? We won’t shed a tear to see them shot down as the wild dogs that they are. Nasty predators on the victims of disasters!  And they are, no doubt about it. One of those comes through your door or window, don’t think twice about shooting him if you’re lucky enough to have a gun or stabbing him if you don’t. Although it might be difficult to differentiate them from the ones who just want a blanket, or clean drinking water, or some food …. Anyway, luckily, those violent predatory looters tend to exist in small numbers and their victims are likely to be numbered in dozens or at most in hundreds ….  

There are people who actually make money – and lots of it – from disasters. These are speculators who flock to disaster areas but they are not called “looters” — they are instead referred to as “entrepreneurs”, “niche investors” or, at worst, as “disaster capitalists”. These are often already organised into corporations and, according to Naomi Klein, one of their major chroniclers (read “Shock Doctrine”), they are organised and waiting for natural disasters and major political changes, anything that leaves most of the population in shock, to move in, privatize state services and property, impose legal and political changes allowing them to make quick profits and strip whatever assets can so be stripped.


The Shock Doctrine book

Milton Friedman, Professor Emeritus at University of Chicago, credited with the creation of the "Chicago School" of neo-conservative economists which legitmized disaster capitalism
Milton Friedman, Professor Emeritus at University of Chicago, credited with the creation of the “Chicago School” of neo-conservative economists which legitmized disaster capitalism

They flocked to Haiti in 2010 as they had to Chile after the coup there in 1973, to the Soviet Bloc as it collapsed from 1989 onwards, to South Africa as apartheid was abolished in the early 1990s, to Indonesia and surrounding lands in the wake of the Java Earthquake and Tsunami of 2006. They are also circling Ireland in its current financial institutions collapse. They are new only in their level of reach and organisation – they flocked to the former Confederacy as it lost the American Civil War in 1885 but in those days they were known as “Carpetbaggers”.  

These capitalists add to the disaster death toll by application of their doctrine of “the more and greater shocks the better”, by their dismantling of the safety nets of state health, welfare and education services, by their destruction of native industry and agricultures (except wherever it suits their plans to continue exploiting them), by the greater impoverishment of populations.  

The looter who terrorized some people in your neighbourhood and killed a few who resisted will almost certainly be gone within the year.  The disaster capitalist may well be gone in the same time or even sooner but he will have caused the deaths of hundreds or thousands in the short term and misery for millions for years to come.  

We should shoot him first, surely?  If you plan to do that, go well-armed, for standing guard for him and his kind are the Shooters: the police and the army.





1    In 2004, I was taking advantage of a really cheap flight and hotel deal to a quiet resort in Trinidad & Tobago. During my short stay, Hurricane Ivan, classified in that area as Category 3 (winds 50-58 knots or 111-129 mph or 178-208 km/h) struck the island. It knocked down trees, downed power lines, caused flooding and landslides. In my hotel, the guests had to make do with a repeat menu served by low lighting and later sandwiches and bottled water delivered to rooms. We experienced a short break in power before the auxilliary generator came on. Television reception was terrible – not worth watching except for trying to make sense of the hurricane diagrams on CNN.

Outside the hotel, a number of poorer people’s houses were destroyed by falling trees, landslides and flooding but I think that thankfully, only one person was actually killed on the island (elsewhere, from the Windward Islands to Latin America, Cuba [where it reached Category 5] and southern and eastern United States, it killed 191 people directly and caused indirectly the deaths of another 32, according to Wikipedia).

As the temperatures climbed back again after the hurricane, power was not restored to many houses and small businesses for days, during which refrigerated and frozen food was destroyed. Most of those houses were without air-conditioning too but then most of them had never had it anyway.

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