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Haiti: Instances of “Looting,” but Little Confirmed Evidence of Post-Quake Violence

Four nights after the Haiti earthquake, the airwaves and the Internet are seeing a growing debate over media's use of the word “looting.” Austria’s reports cases of “pluendern,” literally “looting” in Port au Prince. The German term, like the English word, implies not just stealing, but a breakdown in social order. French media has used “pillage”. Spanish-language press and blogs are frequently using a similar word, “saqueo”. Blogger Ortiz Feliciano finesses the term while introducing an explanation from a Red Cross volunteer on the ground:

El saqueo de las tiendas que empezó después del temblor parece ser inevitable y hasta necesario. ‘No hay otra manera de conseguir alimentos,’ dijo Matt Marek representante de la Cruz Roja americana sobre el saqueo. ‘Incluso si usted tiene dinero no tiene cómo comprar nada porque las tiendas están destrozadas y nadie trabaja.’

The looting of shops that began after the quake seems to be inevitable and even necessary. ‘There’s no other way to get provisions,’ said Matt Marek, a representative of the American Red Cross, about the looting. ‘Even if you have money you have no way to buy anything because the shops are destroyed and no one’s at work.’

Similar use of the term appears in Polish media and the Irish and British press.

A debate over the term turned on racial politics on two American blogs. The Awl, a group blog of NY media insiders, noticed a slightly different version of the Red Cross statement Ortiz Feliciano had highlighted. But where the Spanish language blog had emphasized the statement's literal content — the food shortages forcing scavenging in Haiti — the American bloggers focused on its implications, and referred to Hurricane Katrina:

Tom Scocca: …Haiti country representative of the American Red Cross, said: ‘There has been widespread looting of collapsed buildings since the earthquake hit. There is no other way to get provisions. Even if you have money, those resources are going to be exhausted in a few days.’
Tom Scocca: If there's no other way to get provisions, it's not looting.
Tom Scocca: This was also how it went with Katrina, right? Reports of rampant, scary violence. To go with the “looting.”
Choire Sicha: Black people running in the night!

Hundreds of comments on a US blog on racial politics, StuffWhitePeopleDo, have also been debating the situation.  Commenter Krystal*Lyte noted:

There were reports of people who were involuntarily starving looting the UN food supply…I honestly don't recall the samoans or the indonesians being characterized as such in their hour of devastation, but yet they [reporters] are bent on pushing the ‘angry’ theme on these particular victims.

At The Future Majority, sociologist Kathleen Tierney of the University of Colorado's (US) Natural Hazard Center, describes the term “loot” as an old problem:

…A lot of it’s about disaster myths—what people say happens in disasters versus what really happens. What these researchers discovered was that the media—even way back in the 1950s and 1960s—approached huge disasters with certain frames. When the media reports on disasters, they’re inevitably going to focus on the dramatic and antisocial, even if it’s one percent of the population committing these acts. And even back then, the looting myth always came to the fore of media reports.

As it has in Haiti.

Yes. For example, the day after this earthquake in Haiti, it was reported that a prison had collapsed and prisoners had gotten away—the presumption being that they had escaped to go and loot. The prisoners didn’t go to check on their mothers or their sisters, they went to loot. And we presumably know this, because they’re bad people, they’re criminals.

Reports of armed gangs, including video of young men with machetes, have appeared in citizen and news video today. Friday, thousands of media and relief workers appear to have made it to the quake's epicenter. But blog and media reports of looting appear to be based on only a few cases.

Konpay, the webpage of a Port au Prince-based NGO of the same name, reported gunshots today.

January 16, 2010. 7am: The gunfire spread last night to our zone. At 1 am it started. It was off in the distance a ways when it first started but got closer and closer up until about 2:30 and then it seemed to stop. All of the homeless on the streets and in the refugee camps again met the chaos with loud singing, clapping and prayers. I am at the Matthew 25 house in Delmas 33. Here we have set up a triage hospital with more than 1,300 refugees on a soccer field.

An American mainstream news outlet, MSNBC, reported only one fatal shooting and a man stealing a coffin:

There were reports of isolated looting as young men walked through downtown with machetes, and robbers reportedly shot one man whose body was left on the street. An AP photographer saw one looter haul a corpse from a coffin at a city cemetery and then drive away with the box.

In Colombia's El Colombiano the terms “saqueo” and desperation appear together. A Spanish wire report quoted in the same paper, and cited widely throughout both the Spanish language media and blogosphere, distinguishes between looting and stealing, quoting quake survivors saying that as a crowd of hungry people broke into a UN warehouse and took vegetables and drygoods, a small group of thieves armed with sticks robbed their personal possessions.

Please visit the Global Voices Haiti Earthquake page for more coverage of the event.


  • Marc, thanks for this interesting post. It really makes you think about how we use language. Thanks.

  • M.V.Sankaran

    You have given a balanced view. Thanks for that. Otherwise, all aid-givers may be deterred from extending their aid for fear of the same being looted by those criminals. The other aspect, that of an epidemic breaking out in the capital of Haiti, also needs to be countered by taking appropriate steps to dispose of rotting bodies and ensuring the restoration of power, water, drainage and other hygienic and medical facilities need to be adverted to. The need of the hour for poor Haiti is not preaching, but administrative actions.

  • Phil may report in German, but that’s because it’s the official language of Austria. The country code .at is a pretty good clue that it’s not German (they use .de).

  • Thanks for the correction, Phil.

  • claude adams

    M.V., rotting bodies, per se, don’t cause epidemics, unless the dead died of a contagious disease (i.e. cholera) or fecal matters is released into drinking water.The ICRC is very clear on this. Thus most of the bodies in P au P don’t represent much of a physical hazard in themselves. The psychological hazard, on the other hand, cannot be ignored.

  • […] Media Using Word, Too, Despite Slim Evidence, writes Marc Herman at Global Voices. Herman says that Polish, German, French, and Spanish journalists have all […]

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