It’s a good thing we have post-modern, post-moral professors, or else some might get the crazy notion that looting is a bad thing. From a weekend piece in the Times, apropos the looting that followed last week’s earthquake in Chile, we get these two nuanced views on the morality of – let us dispense with the niceties – collective theft:
Tricia Wachtendorf, associate director of the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center, objects to even the use of the words “looting” or “crime” to describe taking essential goods, noting that nobody objected to firemen taking water from stores near Ground Zero to rinse the World Trade Center’s smoke from their eyes.
The ethics depend on the facts of each case, said James M. Glass, a politics professor at the University of Maryland. “You can argue that hungry men stealing from stores is O.K., but hungry men attacking a woman with a bag of groceries for her kids is a moral quagmire. It’s not a situation where anybody comes out in a good way.”
A few thoughts. First, New York firemen rinsing their eyes in the course of saving civilians from a smoldering inferno is hardly the same as a few opportunists taking advantage of a natural disaster to rampage for a new flat screen. As for Professor Glass’s scenario: In what bizarro world does a woman carrying food for her children – presumably also hungry – come off as morally compromised as the attackers who steal her groceries? Simply mind-boggling.
Look, few if anyone would deny that stealing bare necessities in order to survive amidst a humanitarian crisis may sometimes be justified. And yes, the profiteers who try to capitalize on disaster by selling those necessities as hideously inflated prices are despicable in their own way. But neither of these truisms is inconsistent with pointing out that there is a phenomenon called looting, that it is a crime, and that those engaged in it, with a few exceptions, should be strongly condemned. That may be too bold for some of our enlightened faculty, but alas that’s true for so much of what is known as common sense outside the purview of academia. At any rate, I’m heartened to see that most Chileans – 85 percent of whom want the looters prosecuted – have no sympathy for the professorial view.