Is Looting an American Pastime?
Looting is not a new phenomenon. For example: “Around the same time of the Hyksos invasion and occupation of Egypt (1650 BC – 1550 BC), Hebrew tradition has it that both Abraham and Moses were given property of Egypt by God. ‘In Genesis 15:14, the despoliation is an act of justifiable vengeance upon the oppressors of Israel. Yet in Exodus, God uses the plagues as an act of mercy to bring knowledge of himself to Israel, Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and to the ends of the earth.’ See Hyksos Iconoclasm and Genesis 13:2 and Genesis 15:14 and Exodus 12:36.” Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Looting

Looting has continued throughout history. My readings suggest that looting occurred most often in conjunction with battles during which one side vanquished their enemy; giving the victors an opportunity to loot. Vikings, Romans, Mongols, Arabs, Germans, and many other nations and groups engaged in looting. Looting occurs throughout the world.

As I think of looting, this word reminds me of the expression, “To the victor go the spoils.” I looked up the origins of that quotation and found: "To the victor belong the spoils. In a war or other contest, the winner gets the booty. The proverb originated in the United States and was first used in 1832 by Senator William Learned Marcy (1786-1857) of New York. 'The victor gets the spoils' and 'To the victor go the spoils' are variations of the proverb." Senator Marcy was quoted as saying, in 1832, "They (Democrats) see nothing wrong in the rule that to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy." Source: http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/1/messages/2452.html

Riots and natural disasters are traumatic events - nobody questions that. However, is looting in the aftermath of rioting or natural disasters a form of emotional therapy? I’m not a psychologist but I wonder what justification could be assigned to people who cause or witness a tragedy; then steal from their fellow man. Here are four excerpts from other perspectives on looting:

  1. “But some believe that desperate survivors who ran out of basic necessities, or took food for their families and hungry children and could no longer wait for rescuers to come should not be blamed in a disaster as extreme as Katrina. This is a life-and-death situation. From the perspective of the looter, 'who knows what tomorrow will bring?'” said Joseph Napoli, co-author of ‘Resiliency in the Face of Disaster and Terrorism: 10 Things to Do to Survive.’
  2. "You may have someone who is of lower income, has minimum resources, minimal possessions and living day to day and -- this is very important -- has no insurance. No rental insurance, no housing insurance. They have no means of recovering what little they had and probably, if someone in the household does have a job, they may not have a job to return to when they are let back into their communities, and they don't know when they will have a source of income again. They may see this unguarded TV and think, 'I can take this and maybe I can sell this in a week and make a little bit of money.’” David Sattler, associate professor of psychology at Western Washington University.
  3. Some, like Columbia University’s Tory Higgins don’t think so. Higgins, a professor of psychology who studies motivation, believes that riots such as these typically occur when people feel ineffective. “In situations like this, there is a long period prior to the riot of feeling that you’re not in control of your own life. It may either be financial, like unemployment or a low-paying job, or political,” he says. “They basically don’t feel respected or that they’re making a difference.” Source: ‘The Psychology of A Rioter,’ The Huffington Post
  4. “According to the Washington Post, a looter in Ferguson, Missouri, expressed pride and admiration for looters and said their actions are justified. “I’m proud of us. We deserve this, and this is what’s supposed to happen when there’s injustice in your community,” said DeAndre Smith, whom the Washington Post says was ‘fresh from looting the QuikTrip.’”

Here are examples:

Picture of looters in Ferguson, Missouri - 2014
Photo 1 - Looting a liquor store in Ferguson, Missouri - 2014
From the picture, I can imagine one of the looters thinking:

“People are saying that a White cop shot a Black man and protesters have started a riot. During this riot, I'll take advantage of the confusion and break into businesses and steal stuff.

“One of my favorite places to loot is a liquor store. Stealing bottles of booze is hard work and I’m looking forward to kicking back and relaxing when I get home.”


Picture of looters after Hurricane Harvy - 2017
Photo 2 - Looting after Hurricane Harvey - 2017
A hurricane (or tornado or earthquake) has hit the community. Now people have an unexpected opportunity to steal stuff. From the picture, I can imagine this conversation:

“Girl, take that price tag off this box. These shoes are a gift for my mother and I don’t want her to know how much I should have paid for them.”

“Okay, but let’s hurry; my jeans are all wet and I think the cops may be coming.”


During and after a riot or natural disaster, police and firefighters are primarily concerned with saving lives. During these dire circumstances, it is difficult for the police to also protect personal property. Looters are aware of the top priority of public employees and simply take advantage of the situation. These thieves use a riot or natural disaster as a distraction to divert honest people’s attention from their own illegal and immoral activity.

While public employees and honest citizens are helping people in need, looters have a totally different priority. Looters are not known for helping their fellow man during a disaster because their primary focus is stealing food and merchandise for their own selfish use.

Does this mean that looters would refuse to help someone in need? Not necessarily. For example, if an elderly citizen was found lying on the sidewalk in front of a Footlocker shoe store, I feel confident the looter would move the injured person away from the door before breaking the store’s glass door. This simple act of human kindness would help lessen the danger of flying glass becoming imbedded in the elderly person’s body.

American soldiers fighting in World War II often brought home souvenirs from the war. Japanese swords and Rising Sun flags; German luger pistols, belt buckles, knives, Swastika flags, and helmets were common prizes of returning veterans. These were acts of looting. However, a grateful nation was loath to punish its soldiers in the aftermath of victory. Instead, our nation took examples of advanced weaponry and military scientists from Germany for our own use. That, too, was looting but it was okay because the US Government did it.

I can understand and accept the fact that looting from a beaten enemy is a long-established practice. However, my acceptance is withheld from individuals who loot (steal) from their fellow man. I draw the line at this form of depraved activity. I am not alone in my condemnation. We have laws which are used to punish looters.

Why is looting, especially in conjunction with a riot or natural disaster, considered so heinous? Looting deeply offends the sensibilities of decent people; especially during a disaster or other calamitous event. Looting is akin to, ‘kicking a man when he is down.’ A majority of Americans believe strongly in fair play and looters violate this core belief.

“Horse stealing in the Old West was a serious offense. A man's life often depended on his ability to get somewhere fast, and that usually was by horseback. To take a man's horse from him in some cases was like putting a bullet through his head. Because of its seriousness the punishment for such crimes was always the same - swift and merciless. The thief was most often found hanging from a tall tree with a note pinned to his shirt identifying him as a horse thief. It was a warning to other would-be horse thieves to think twice before taking another man's horse.” Source: http://EzineArticles.com/6478962

From the example above, it is logical that looting victims have similar beliefs toward a just punishment. This is perhaps why I noticed signs such as, “Looters will be shot and their bodies thrown into the river.” (Sign observed from Hurricane Sandy aftermath.) Another more recent example is, “You loot – we’ll shoot.”

There are a number of kind-hearted Americans who believe killing looters is too drastic. It’s likely they have not been victims of looting. These kind-hearted souls believe looters are simply misunderstood, culturally deprived, or reacting to a lifetime of discrimination. These same kind hearted souls label the media as racist when Black people are singled out as the primary looters during emergencies. Judging by the number of photographs of looters I’ve seen, I’m guessing these kind-hearted souls believe that pictures do lie!

Where are your sentiments regarding looters? Do you believe looters are the scum of the earth and deserve whatever punishment is given or are you a guilt-ridden kind-hearted soul who would help the looters carry their stolen liquor, sports apparel, and sneakers home with them?

Joe R. East, Jr.

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Updated 07/19/2017
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