Should Looters Be Shot?

Should looters during natural disasters and riots be shot?

That is the question of the day after it was revealed that in the days following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Police Officers were given the authority to shoot looters. The order may be linked to the deaths of 11 civilians.

According to

"In a radio interview, former Mayor Ray Nagin said that he had called for martial law to be instituted in the city, generating confusion over whether it had been implemented even though it wasn't allowed under the state Constitution. Soon after, hazy orders to 'shoot looters,' 'take back the city,' or 'do what you have to do' began circulating within the police force."

Were these people breaking into businesses, taking things, and acting in violent, chaotic ways? If so, what choice was there?


The problem is, looting is often part of such general chaos that it's hard to understand the reason the looting is happening. Are they taking luxury items like televisions and jewelry? Or, are they grabbing bandages, water, and medication?

Take the Oakland violence last month after the transit cop accused of shooting an unarmed black man was convicted of manslaughter instead of murder. The verdict prompted a 1,000-person protest that started peacefully, but ended with many "looting stores, smashing car windows, throwing powerful fireworks at police, and lighting fires in trash cans," according to Reuters 

The police arrested at least 50 people and were able to get things under control relatively quickly, so in that case, perhaps shooting wouldn't have been the best option. But there are some cases where there have to be severe consequences to end the mayhem.

Take the six days of looting and violence that followed the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles in 1992. The National Guard had to come out to get things under control and even then, it took days.

Of course, post-disaster looting is something else entirely. You have people who are possibly starving, who need basic supplies, and everything is in chaos. I cannot imagine what the people after Katrina or disasters like the earthquakes in Chile and Haiti have gone through and the amount of chaos that surrounds them. In that case, maybe the only way to meet certain needs is to walk into stores and take what you need.

Of course, then you have stories like the ones out of Pakistan following this month's flood where the armed bandits were stealing basic things -- food, water, cattle -- from one another and making things even worse. I suppose the instinct to survive in those kinds of circumstances might make people act out of character.

Should a person really be shot for that?

Much as I would love to say yes and just get it under control, I can't say that. There are too many extenuating circumstances and if we can't uphold our constitutional principles even under the worst of circumstances, then why even have them?

Do you think it's OK to shoot looters?


Image via Daquella manera/Flickr

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