Friday 22 January 2010

Should looters be shot on sight?

I have mixed feelings about the shooting of looters. First of all, let me say that I have nothing but contempt for looters who enter abandoned shops during a crisis for the sole purpose of looting them. My visceral reaction to the looters and other criminals who act this way during an emergency crisis is the same feeling as most: they’re scum who deserve no compassion.

However, I can’t in all honesty say that people who are starving during a crisis who enter a food store to steal food are really looters. I can see going into a grocery store for food if you're starving, and there were no assistance in sight for days or weeks to come. But, if the Red Cross and similar organizations are already on the scene with food stations and other supplies, there's no reason to be looting a grocery store. The kind of looters I am condemning are the kind that loot stores for radios, television sets, computers etc.

The looting these people engage in are for pure materialism that has nothing to do with survival in a disaster situation. Under riot conditions, shooting armed perpetrators in the midst of violence may be a necessary evil. However, shooting unarmed television thieves is probably difficult to justify. The question that I put to my readers is, “Should they still be shot on sight?

The cover of the July 28, 1967, issue of Life magazine was one of the grimmest one could ever see. It showed a 12-year-old black kid in filthy sneakers and worn-out jeans sprawled on the filthy pavement of a street in Newark, New Jersey. His left arm was bent at a gruesome angle. Blood was pooling beneath his body. He looked dead. He was shot as a looter during the Newark riots, one of the most violent outbursts of the 1960's. The background of that boy’s death was as follows. While the riot was still underway, the boy had been looting a liquor store. As he was running out of the store with beer in his hand, a squad car pulled up. Police officers with shotguns jump out. The boy took off, running as fast as he could. A uniformed cop in a yellow hard hat lifted his shotgun to his shoulder, aimed and fired it. The boy ended up on the sidewalk, dead. Another 12 year-old boy who was a bystander and not a looter was also shot. He was wounded in his neck and thigh. He managed to survive his injuries. In Port du Prince, Haiti, during the earthquake crises of January 2010, the looters began going into shops and stealing goods. Some were stealing food and water but others were stealing items that were not of an emergency nature. In one instance, a 15-year-old girl was seen carrying away ornamental mirrors that she stole from a store. A police officer saw her carrying away the goods she had stolen and shot her dead. Her dead body was displayed in newspapers worldwide. Her death was much easier than that of the fugitive who like many others prisoners had escaped from the prison in Haiti during the earthquake. He was found looting a store and then seized by a crowd of people, He was stripped of his clothes and dragged naked along the streets and then beaten to death with sticks and when they finished beating him, gasoline was poured over his body and then set on fire.

Now, in the dawn of the 21st century, when we as a society are hoping that our society will be a model of progress, fairness, justice and due process, should we still shoot looters like dogs in the street?

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco warned rioters and looters in New Orleans on September 1, 2005 that National Guard troops were under her orders to “shoot and kill” to end the rampant violence in the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Unfortunately, some of those waiting to be picked up died of dehydration in the 90-degree heat that has afflicted the region of New Orleans so if they entered abandoned food stores to grab whatever liquids they could get their hands on, such as pop cans etc., I hardly thing shooting these kinds of people would have been justified at all.
Admittedly, shooting looters is a way that has been used historically to prevent the breakdown of social order. It was used, for example, in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco quake.

The prospect of shooting looters, especially with a shoot-on-sight policy, is frightening. Constitutions are being thrown out the window when orders to ‘shoot to kill looters’ is given. Not only are basic due process rights–being charged with a crime, a trial, an attorney, the right to confront witnesses–being ignored but we’re turning relatively minor crimes into capital ones. Even with benefit of due process, theft is not something for which we execute people.

What would we do if looters rushed into our homes for the sole purpose of looting them while we were there? I can answer that question real quick. I would shoot them if I had a gun. A person’s home is his or her castle and should never be invaded by anyone no matter what his or her intention may be. However, I would first warn them that if they don’t immediately leave empty-handed, I would shoot them. If they didn’t leave or they left with an item they stole from me, I would shoot them in the legs. If they were heading towards me or a member of my family, I would shoot them in their heads to kill them. Everyone has a right to protect their homes and family members and themselves from looters who invade their homes and as I see it, if deadly force must be used, then so be it.

Our courts have recognized that when someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow. For example, if a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. The court have also ruled that it isn’t necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one's own life than of another's. Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another's life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church on the other hand states in section 2263. The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. "The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one's own life; and the killing of the aggressor.... the one is intended, the other is not.

The Sayre Fire in California had started in November 2008 in the Northern San Fernando Valley, burning more than 2,500 acres, leaping the 210 and 5 freeways, and threatening 1,000 homes and structures. One of the home owners, who was later permitted to return to his home, came across two female burglars heading towards posh, emptied-out suburban Porter Ranch homes where they chose fancy-looking homes with price tags of $1 million and up. Police say they knew what they wanted, grabbing up designer baubles and handbags. However, the duo, Sabrina Devens, 32, and suspected ringleader Gina Rios, 19, were caught red-handed — by their intended victim. When the intended victim arrived at his home, he found a “short girl,” Rios, standing near his front door and a strange car parked in front of his driveway. Rios told the intended victim she was “waiting for Jerry McGuire.” The intended victim responded that there was “no Jerry here.” The owner of the home demanded his belongings back and Rios refused with an emphatic “No!” but then relented when LAPD officers saw the younger of the women with shaved head and baggy jeans arguing with the intended victim and arrested her and her partner in crime. Detective Walton says Devens, and possibly Rios, pulled off two separate, lucrative burglaries in the last six months. In October, a home in Van Nuys was burglarized after the owners forgot to lock their back door. The culprits pilfered $15,000 worth of goods including a watch and electronics. On June 24, another home was robbed of $28,500 in property, including a $3,000 Rolex, three diamond platinum rings, pink diamond earrings worth $7,000, and a laptop.

British troops serving in southern Iraq just after the combat phase was declared over in May 2003 found themselves confronted by wholesale looting, and no guidance from London on how to deal with it. The looting was so widespread that the Army’s commanding officer of 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines even requested permission to shoot looters. But he was told by the Army’s senior lawyer in Basra that this was unacceptable and that only minimum force could be used. Colonel Mercer said that there were no lawful grounds for such action. He said; “I made it absolutely clear that non-lethal minimum force was to be used. I did not want dead looters on the streets.” Martial law (or the equivalent) might allow it. At one point, American forces in Iraq were given the authority to shoot looters on sight in order to establish social order amid the post-invasion chaos.

Implementing a shoot-on-sight order here on American or Canadian soil would likely set off political and legal firestorms of unimaginable proportions. You can't kill people just because they take merchandise. Human life is more valuable than simple merchandise. But if the actions of the looters create a situation that is gravely threatening to human life then the use of lethal force will be proportionate to that. If there is no other practicable way to end the threat, lethal force would be justified. This situation is not a shoot-on-sight policy, though. It's only shooting in a very specific circumstance. In order to justify a shoot-on-sight policy, one would have to establish that the looting itself (not just the looting of specific things like guns) constitutes a grave threat to human life and that there is no other way to deal with this threat effectively.

The trouble with ignoring looters is that if you let people start taking merchandise from stores then it will lead to a generalized breakdown of social order in which one has gangs of armed men roaming the streets and committing unspeakable atrocities against the remainder of the citizenry. It is for this reason that the shooting of looters may act as a deterrent to the continuation of criminal behaviour when the rest of society is desperately in need of help.

In New Orleans during the Katrina crisis, there were gangs of armed men tossing the elderly out of nursing homes so they could be ransacked and shutting down otherwise functional and vitally needed hospitals by confiscating their medical supplies at gunpoint. There were reports of rape, and no doubt numerous murders are being committed as well. The only way to have ended this would have been with a shoot-on-sight policy for looters.

Looting is a specialized kind of theft that takes advantage of the fact that the likelihood of retribution has dipped below a certain level. In other words, looting is what happens when whatever is being done in the way of deterrence has completely and utterly failed. The question that presents itself to us is this: Is it justified to raise the retributive level of a punishment if the needs of deterrence demand it?

Some people have advocated ‘shoot to kill’ against the looters in a knee-jerk reaction of human disgust. Some, on the other hand, cannot distinguish between looting and petty theft, and ask why the punishment should potentially be different for the two offenses.

How do we as a society enforce a zero tolerance policy on looting in either Baghdad, New Orleans or Port du Prince? We don’t have the resources to arrest and detain looters during an emergency. The only viable means of stopping looting is to shoot looters. Unless we are willing to mount that credible threat, waving guns and issuing warnings will have no effect. Marauding looters scurry past burly cops waving shotguns without a thought. Any attempt to stop the looting is simply a charade. Both the cops and the looters know that the use of deadly force might land the cop in jail and the police chief in front of a congressional or parliamentary commission. So how do we deal with looters?

I suggest that it be done in three stages. The first stage is for the local government to make a declaration of martial law. The second stage should be a public warning that looters will be shot on sight if they don’t immediately surrender. The third stage should be that looters who don’t surrender immediately when ordered to, will be shot in the legs if they run away with stolen goods in their arms. Those criminals who shoot back at the police or armed soldiers will be shot dead.

Society has a right to be protected from criminals who take advantage of a society in need of emergency help by looting during a crisis when people’s lives are at risk. I for one, have no sympathy for these thugs unless as I said earlier, they are stealing food and water or anything similar to water when there is a great shortage of it elsewhere.

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