Please Don’t Misuse the Word “Looting”

I do not usually sound off on current events here because I assume my readers are as globally, politically, and socially aware as they want to be. Clearly, at the very least you all have access to the internet and could easily spend days sifting through news sources if you so choose.  So typically, I let you do just that and leave this space for the things you cannot find elsewhere in cyberspace, like my breakfast menu.  However, given the recent coverage of the devastating aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, an issue has arisen that I just cannot shake.

Please do not misuse the word “looting” and please consider news reports that use that word with a grain of salt.


Loot (verb): 1a. the plunder or sack in a war, b. to rob especially on a large scale and usually by violence or corruption; 2. to seize and carry away by force especially in war


Entering an abandoned store in search of basic provisions, such as food or medical supplies, is not looting.  Finding personal or household items that seem to have no owner and using them for yourself and your family when there is absolutely nothing standing around you is not looting.  Displays of fear and emotion while waiting in line to receive limited aid supplies is not looting.

News reports recently stated that there was ‘widespread looting of rice.’  Even if these individuals were prepared to pay for the rice (which will be likely cooked in extremely contaminated water and provide substandard nutrition), what are they supposed to do?  Form a line and wait for the cashier to return to a store with no walls, no door?  Leave money on the counter?  Perhaps write the owner an I.O.U. to find amidst the rubble of an absolutely destroyed livelihood?

Looting, in times of disaster, refers to the violent seizure of items that are not basic provisions of survival.  In the United States, we saw this after Hurricane Katrina, in which electronic goods were stolen at an alarming rate from damaged and abandoned department stores.  This certainly is occurring in Haiti as well, I am not meaning to say that all reports of looting are incorrect.  However, using the word to describe individuals who are feeding and clothing their families, seeking supplies to build temporary shelters, or utilizing whatever is available to provide medical care is not the plundering of goods that the term “looting” implies.

I am making a very real request that you use the word very carefully in the discussions you will likely have about Haiti in the coming weeks.  Asking network news to change their reporting practices would be foolish– I understand my own sphere of influence.  So again, please be aware of the use of the word looting, and if you have the courage, please speak up to others who use the term incorrectly.  The Haitians are in the midst of a level of Hell most of us will never realize and the last thing they deserve is to be criminalized and demonized by an external community of people who, for the most part, have never had to fight so hard to live.

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