Looting has a bad reputation, but from the Battle of Corinth to the L.A. riots, it’s been a mainstay of civilization — and its ‘morality’ depends on who’s in power
A Target in Minneapolis near where George Floyd was killed by cops was heavily looted on Wednesday. Videos posted on Twitter showed a chaotic scene: people hauling away TVs, vacuum cleaners and rugs, and using stolen power tools to drill into cash registers. (Additional looters were spotted at a nearby tobacco store, a Dollar Tree and an AutoZone.) Riots are “a messy part of the evolution of society,” Time magazine noted during the 2014 civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, when significant looting occurred in the neighborhood of Michael Brown Jr.’s shooting (another Black man dead by the hands of a white cop)
All of this, of course, is taking place against the larger backdrop of pandemic-related looting concerns around the world, as luxury stores in Beverly Hills are boarded up, Italian police are patrolling supermarkets to stop people from stealing food and the NYPD is reporting a 75 percent increase in burglaries of businesses. Meanwhile, from Mexico to Indonesia, and South Carolina to Santa Cruz, dozens have already been arrested for looting in the shadow of COVID-19.
Interestingly, in most U.S. states, like California, any theft or burglary committed during a declared emergency constitutes looting. Looting, however, is far more nuanced than petty theft, due to its “ambiguous moral character,” explains Stuart Green, a professor at Rutgers Law School, who says that looting is widely considered to be worse than typical forms of property crimes, but also sometimes justified. And so, as the number of unemployed Americans swells to nearly 40 million, desperate citizens may resort to what Green calls “virtuous looting,” i.e., stealing that’s driven by survival.
With help from Green, a military expert, a police chief, a sociologist and an archeologist, here’s all the historical context for what’s happening in Minnesota at the moment, as well as why the concerns about widespread corona-inspired pillaging are probably unfounded.
1) The word “looting,” which comes from Sanskrit lut, “to rob,” entered into European languages centuries ago to refer to the pillaging undertaken by invading armies, an activity apparently sanctioned by God. “You may enjoy the plunder from your enemies that the LORD your God has given you,” reads Deuteronomy 20:14.
2) In 1225, Genghis Khan asked his generals, “What is the greatest happiness in life?” When they responded that it was hunting on a warm spring day while riding atop a splendid horse, Khan explained the greatest heavenly pleasure was, in fact, “vanquishing one’s enemies and robbing them of their wealth.”
3) As such, throughout recorded history, looting by a victorious army has been ubiquitous. Precious metals were the preferred bounty, thanks to their easy portability. In the Battle of Corinth (146 B.C.), the winning Roman army slaughtered the entire adult male population, enslaved the women and children and looted all of the ancient city’s treasure, marking the end of the Achaean War and the beginning of the period of Roman domination.
4) Foot soldiers viewed plunder as a way to supplement a meager income. Medieval looting was written into the contracts of mercenary troops who fought for private employers and various kings during wars, explains Joseph O’Brien, a firearms and military expert at Donley Auctions in Illinois. “If you fought and won, you got to take whatever booty the enemy possessed,” he says, adding that free companies acted independently of any government and would give a percentage to their captain, a percentage to whomever hired them and pocket the rest.
5) Jumping forward 800 years or so, when the British Empire spanned the globe, the imperialists looted every country they conquered and transported treasures back to London to pay homage to the Queen. “Ancient heritage and art was stripped from Egypt and Greece by European colonial powers, including all of the mummies in the British Museum,” explains Roger Atwood, contributing editor at Archaeology Magazine. When Titos Flavios Demetrios died in the Egyptian town of Hawara 2,000 years ago, he expected his soul and carefully mummified body would be transported to the underworld nirvana of Osiris, god of the dead. Instead, Demetrios is spending the afterlife in a dusty display case at an underfunded provincial museum in Ipswich…