The Psychology of Looting: What Drives People to Loot and How to Stop Them
During a disaster, police and military forces are sometimes unable to prevent looting when they are overwhelmed by humanitarian or combat concerns, or they cannot be summoned because of damaged communications infrastructure. Especially during natural disasters, many civilians may find themselves forced to take what does not belong to them in order to survive. How to respond to that and where the line between unnecessary "looting" and necessary "scavenging" lies are often dilemmas for governments. In other cases, looting may be tolerated or even encouraged by governments for political or other reasons, including religious, social or economic ones.
In ancient times, looting was sometimes prohibited due to religious concerns. For example, King Clovis I of the Franks, forbade his soldiers to loot when they campaigned near St Martin's shrine in Tours, for fear of offending the saint. In the Biblical narrative, Moses, Joshua and Samuel at various points order the Israelites not to take loot from their enemies due to God's commandment.
In warfare in ancient times, the spoils of war included the defeated populations, which were often enslaved. Women and children might become absorbed into the victorious country's population, as concubines, eunuchs and slaves. In other pre-modern societies, objects made of precious metals were the preferred target of war looting, largely because of their ease of portability. In many cases, looting offered an opportunity to obtain treasures and works of art that otherwise would not have been obtainable. Beginning in the early modern period and reaching its peak in the New Imperialism era, European colonial powers frequently looted areas they captured during military campaigns against non-European states. In the 1930s, and even more so during the Second World War, Nazi Germany engaged in large-scale and organized looting of art and property, particularly in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Looting, combined with poor military discipline, has occasionally been an army's downfall since troops who have dispersed to ransack an area may become vulnerable to counter-attack. In other cases, for example, the Wahhabi sack of Karbala in 1801 or 1802, loot has contributed to further victories for an army. Not all looters in wartime are conquerors; the looting of Vistula Land by the retreating Imperial Russian Army in 1915 was among the factors sapping the loyalty of Poles to Russia. Local civilians can also take advantage of a breakdown of order to loot public and private property, as took place at the Iraq Museum in the course of the Iraq War in 2003. Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy's novel War and Peace describes widespread looting by Moscow's citizens before Napoleon's troops entered the city in 1812, along with looting by French troops elsewhere.
Despite international prohibitions against the practice of looting, the ease with which it can be done means that it remains relatively common, particularly during outbreaks of civil unrest during which rules of war may not yet apply. The 2011 Egyptian Revolution, for example, caused a significant increase in the looting of antiquities from archaeological sites in Egypt, as the government lost the ability to protect the sites. Other acts of modern looting, such as the looting and destruction of artifacts from the National Museum of Iraq by Islamic State militants, can be used as an easy way to express contempt for the concept of rules of war altogether.
In the case of a sudden change in a country or region's government, it can be difficult to determine what constitutes looting as opposed to a new government taking custody of the property in question. This can be especially difficult if the new government is only partially recognized at the time the property is moved, as was the case during the 2021 Taliban offensive, during which a number of artifacts and a large amount of property of former government officials who had fled the country fell into the hands of the Taliban before they were recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan by other countries. Further looting and burning of civilian homes and villages has been defended by the Taliban as within their right as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.
Looting can also be common in cases where civil unrest is contained largely within the borders of a country or during peacetime. Riots in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd protests in numerous American cities led to increased amounts of looting, as looters took advantage of the delicate political situation and civil unrest surrounding the riots themselves.
In 2022, international observers accused Russia of engaging in large scale looting during the Russo-Ukrainian War, reporting the widespread looting of everything from food to industrial equipment. Despite the publication of numerous photos and videos by Ukrainian journalists and civilians, numerous Russian commanders, such as Gareo Novalsky, have denied these claims. International observers have theorized that this looting is either the result of direct orders, despite to Russia's claims to the contrary, or due to Russian soldiers not being issued with adequate food and other resources by their commanders.
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The term "looting" is also sometimes used to refer to antiquities being removed from countries by unauthorized people, either domestic people breaking the law seeking monetary gain or foreign nations, which are usually more interested in prestige or previously, "scientific discovery". An example might be the removal of the contents of Egyptian tombs that were transported to museums across the West. Whether that constitutes "looting" is a debated point, with other parties pointing out that the Europeans were usually given permission of some sort, and many of the treasures would not have been discovered at all if the Europeans had not funded and organized the expeditions or digs that located them. Many such antiquities have already been returned to their country of origin voluntarily.
In the past months of demonstrations for Black lives, there has been a lot of condemnation of looting. Whether it was New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo saying that stealing purses and sneakers from high-end stores in Manhattan was "inexcusable," or St. Paul, Minn., Mayor Melvin Carter saying looters were "destroy[ing] our community," police officers, government officials and pundits alike have denounced the property damage and demanded an end to the riots. And just last week, rioters have burned buildings and looted stores in Kenosha, Wis., following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, to which Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., has said: "Peaceful protesting is a constitutionally protected form of free speech. Rioting is not."
When she finished it, back in April, she wrote that "a new energy of resistance is building across the country." Now, as protests and riots continue to grip cities, she stakes out a provocative position: that looting is a powerful tool to bring about real, lasting change in society. The rioters who smash windows and take items from stores, she claims, are engaging in a powerful tactic that questions the justice of "law and order," and the distribution of property and wealth in an unequal society.
When I use the word looting, I mean the mass expropriation of property, mass shoplifting during a moment of upheaval or riot. That's the thing I'm defending. I'm not defending any situation in which property is stolen by force. It's not a home invasion either. It's about a certain kind of action that's taken during protests and riots.
"Rioting" generally refers to any moment of mass unrest or upheaval. Riots are a space in which a mass of people has produced a situation in which the general laws that govern society no longer function, and people can act in different ways in the street and in public. I'd say that rioting is a broader category in which looting appears as a tactic.
But there's also another factor, which is anti-Blackness and contempt for poor people who want to live a better life, which looting immediately provides. One thing about looting is it freaks people out. But in terms of potential crimes that people can commit against the state, it's basically nonviolent. You're mass shoplifting. Most stores are insured; it's just hurting insurance companies on some level. It's just money. It's just property. It's not actually hurting any people.
"For far too long, Washington has looked the other way while privateequity firms take over companies, load them with debt, strip them of theirwealth, and walk away scot-free -leaving workers, consumers, and wholecommunities to pick up the pieces, " said Senator Warren. "Ourbill ends these abusive practices by putting private investment funds on thehook for the decisions made by the companies they control, ending looting,empowering workers and investors, and safeguarding the markets from riskycorporate debt."
"We must act now to prevent more mass lay-offs due to predatory privateequity deals," said Representative Ro Khanna. "Ourlaws should reward hard work and persistence, not loopholes and financiallooting. Proud to support this bill to demand fairness and transparency fromWall Street."
"If the Vikings had had public relations teams, they would have claimedto be making better use of the resources of the fishing villages they pillaged.Private equity often leaves a similar trail of destruction-looting productiveresources rather than salvaging unproductive ones. This bill addresses seriousproblems with the private equity business model, without getting in the way offirms that actually do produce allocative or operational efficiencies thatstrengthen the U.S. economy," said Thea Lee, President of theEconomic Policy Institute. Read her full statement of support here.
"Private equity firms are raising record amounts for infrastructureinvestments, and that should worry all of us," said Lauren Jacobs,Executive Director of the Partnership for Working Families."These firms are maximizing profit for Wall Street executives at theexpense of the public good. We need rules of the road to stop private equityfirms from looting our public assets and harming workers, communities, andbusinesses. Our public goods are for all of us and should make our communitieshealthier and stronger."