Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Emergency requisitioning

It was after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 that the American journalist Rebecca Solnit wrote a memorable condemnation of the media’s use of the word ‘looting’ when massive disasters occur. What would you do? she asked. ‘Imagine, reader, that your city is shattered by a disaster. Your home no longer exists, and you spent what cash was in your pockets days ago. Your credit cards are meaningless because there is no longer any power to run credit-card charges. Actually, there are no longer any storekeepers, any banks, any commerce, or much of anything to buy. The economy has ceased to exist.’ If, then, you go out and help yourself to food, water and medicines from stores, she asks, should that make you a criminal? Should you be labelled a looter in the international media? Or are you in fact a rescuer, helping, perhaps to save the lives of your children? In short, Solnit asks (and this is the big question), is the survival of disaster victims more important than the preservation of everyday property relations? Yet here we are again with the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan being labelled looters left, right and centre. I’m with Solnit on this: ‘looting’ and its derivatives are very loaded words, and every time I see or hear them used, I feel we comfortably-off Westerners run the risk of sounding grossly patronizing towards people whose suffering is, for most of us, unimaginable. I agree with her completely when she says we need to banish the word ‘looting’ and call it instead (for example) emergency requisitioning. If you take necessary supplies to sustain human life in the absence of any alternative, she says, ‘Not only would I not call that looting, I wouldn’t even call that theft.’