Why we loot

Whether it's a mob after a Bulls championship or citizens of a newly liberated nation, the dynamic seems to be more than just the intersection of greed and opportunity

By Julia Keller, Tribune Cultural Critic
May 2, 2003

See stuff.
Want stuff.
Take stuff.

That's pretty much the popular image of looting, the caveman mantra trotted out to explain the act. It is, according to this formulation, just primitive greed in the midst of chaos, no more complex or sophisticated than the basic urge to exploit mayhem for personal gain.

When American military forces took over Baghdad last month, thieves ransacked the National Museum of Iraq and its priceless collection of artifacts dating back five millennia. Iraqi hospitals also were plundered.

Televised scenes of looting in the Iraqi capital were similar to the confusion arising from riots, protest marches, sports-related celebrations and the aftermath of natural disasters in cities around the world: When a large group of people finds the rule of law suddenly suspended, the result is apt to be a frenzy of smashing and grabbing, of helping oneself to whatever's handy.

Looting seems about as psychologically complicated as, "Hey, outta my way – I saw it first!"

Yet the sociologists who study crowd behavior say that looting is commonly misunderstood.

"Looting is not just lawlessness," says Michael J. Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at Stanford University who, in the course of earning a doctorate at the University of Chicago, studied incidences of looting in the wake of celebrations after the Chicago Bulls won the 1992 NBA championship.

"It's not that looting is a good thing. But there's a logic to it," he says. "You get a sense, from what people loot and destroy, of which things they think are illegitimate. The things left standing are the parts of society that people feel some solidarity with."

Learning about looting, Rosenfeld adds, can provide law enforcement officials and political leaders with what seems to be an instant index to the attitudes of those who participate in riots. "Riots represent an opportunity to draw inferences about the real nature of poor peoples' grievances based on concrete actions," he wrote in his article, adding that such study is an example of "the new social history, which has sought specifically to promote the crowd or the mob as an expression of poor peoples' grievances, and as a factor in historical change." He cautions, however, that some observers draw conclusions about motivations for looting based not on empirical evidence, but on speculation and rumor. Everybody thinks they know why somebody else loots.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seems to agree that looting is not just larceny. Asked at an April 11 press briefing about the violence that had broken out on the streets of Baghdad, he replied, "While no one condones looting, on the other hand, one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression and people who have had members of their family killed by that regime, for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime." Looting, that is, may be a way for the dispossessed to let off a little steam – and to even the score. Many Iraqi citizens, according to recent news accounts, felt as if Saddam Hussein's regime had stolen from them; looting, by that scenario, was simply turnabout.

Yet many observers claim that the museum theft was the work of professional art thieves – not ordinary Iraqis dizzy with newfound freedom. That would seem to undermine the idea of looting as a predominantly political act.

Inevitable consequence

In any case, looting clearly is more than just the intersection of greed and opportunity. And it is often exaggerated, says Clark McPhail, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who argues that looting is not an inevitable consequence of large, passionate gatherings.

"The notion that violence is widespread and continuous in riots does not correspond with what I and other researchers have seen," says McPhail, author of "The Myth of the Madding Crowd" (1991), a study of crowd behavior. "In general, looting and violence are rare events. But it's not news if it's a peaceful gathering."

Still, Rumsfeld has insisted that looting was a natural outgrowth of recent events. "If you go from a repressive regime that has – it's a police state, where people are murdered and imprisoned by the tens of thousands – and then you go to something other than that – a liberated Iraq – then you go through a transition period," he continued at the April 11 press conference. "And in every country, in my adult lifetime, that's had the wonderful opportunity to do that, to move from a repressed dictatorial regime to something that's freer, we've seen in that transition period there is untidiness, and there's no question but that that's not anyone's choice."

In other words: Looting happens.

Yet Paul Zimansky, an archeology professor at Boston University, sees less honest passion from the sudden hope of democracy and more canny calculation from the sudden proximity of riches in the recent looting of Baghdad's museums and libraries. "Professionals were involved," he declares. "Things that weren't real [reproductions and plaster castes of statuary, hence not valuable] were left alone. I think there was a mob behind these guys. The looter is looking at market forces."

Other observers see both impulses at work within the same looters: a desire to get stuff, as well as a desire to get back at Hussein. As Wall Street Journal columnist Eric Gibson wrote on April 18, "In short, Iraqis laid waste to the museum in Baghdad because it had become the symbol of a hated regime. And little wonder. Saddam stole his country's treasures, hauling off truckloads for his enrichment. But he also misappropriated Iraq's history by making it a tool of his personality cult."

That mix of cool-eyed strategy and hot-headed abandon is typical of the fog surrounding looting, Rosenfeld says, and underscores the fact that looting is not a simple phenomenon for which there are easy remedies. An undisclosed number of American journalists, for instance, stand accused of filching "souvenirs" from the Iraqi conflict, including artworks, firearms and household items. Moreover, there is a time-honored military tradition in which victorious soldiers are tacitly allowed to pocket keepsakes from the conquered nation. Many World War II and Vietnam veterans will happily show you their souvenirs from those conflicts.

The ambiguity surrounding looting doesn't surprise Rosenfeld. "It's not random and there's more to it than just thievery," he says. "But nobody knows what the public opinion in Iraq is. Nobody knows what the people in Iraq feel. Looters are a crowd that shows up without a spokesman. No one stands up to make a `Looters' Statement of Principles.'"

To figure out who does most of the looting in chaotic situations – longtime bad guys or bystanders who get swept up in the fracas – why not just examine arrest records in the aftermath of looting incidents?

"Who gets arrested gives you only indirect evidence of who participated," says Rosenfeld. "It's not the hardened criminals. It's a community thing. And it's not just stealing things."

'Risky endeavor'

In his study of the '92 Chicago riots, Rosenfeld tackled the widespread conviction that urban riots are similar and predictable, and that they arise from single, obvious causes such as a sports victory or an isolated incident perceived as unjust by an aggrieved group. "Categorizing riots without any micro level data to rely on is a risky endeavor," he wrote in an article published in 1997 in the scholarly journal Social Problems. "The Bulls won five championships between 1991 and 1997, with ostensibly identical precipitating incidents in each case, yet the destructiveness of the various disturbances varied by more than an order of magnitude."

Why did one championship spark looting and mayhem while another didn't? Rumors abound, of course. Rosenfeld explored the pervasive belief at the time that the violence reflected tensions between the African-American and Korean-American and Arab-American communities, concluding, "My empirical analysis, which uses store level data for all the stores in the areas of significant looting, shows that the looters selectively targeted one particular kind of store, those that sell food and liquor, without regard for the ethnicity of the store owner."

A complex issue

No matter what we think we know about looting, that is, the activity is almost always more complex than we are ready to concede. In the case of the 1992 riots in Chicago, Rosenfeld says the complex array of causes included the earlier acquittal of five Los Angeles police officers for the beating of Rodney King, as well as a reduction of benefits in Illinois. To chalk the looting and property destruction to a basketball championship was a vast oversimplification.

Yet taking the easy way out when contemplating looting is common, Rosenfeld wrote: "The tendency to classify riots by their precipitating event, rather than their long-term underlying causes, is understandable mainly because precipitating events are usually singular and accessible while underlying causes may be multiple and opaque."

McPhail, too, argues that looting is not simple and that looters do not emerge from a single group. "All of the studies that ask, `Why did you do it [looting]?' find that there is a list of reasons. . . . You have the professional thieves who know where the goods are and know the police are distracted. You have opportunistic looting – people who loot with companions. Sometimes, it's retaliation."

And sometimes, looting doesn't seem so bad after all. Visibly irritated at the April 11 briefing at the barrage of questions about looting in Iraq, Rumsfeld said, with apparent sarcasm, "For suddenly the biggest problem in the world to be looting is really notable."

A man's view from the mob

How does it feel to be in the middle of a mass of shouting, chanting, marching people – the kind of group that can easily turn into a rampaging, looting mob?
Alton Miller, 59, who teaches political and governmental relations at Columbia College Chicago, has been in several such gatherings, he said, from anti-Vietnam War rallies in the late 1960s and '70s, to political and union rallies throughout the 1980s and '90s. While he said he has witnessed looting only on television, Miller, a former press spokesman for the late Mayor Harold Washington, offered this account of the frenzied, unruly atmosphere that often can precede looting and other violent behavior:

There's this thing that happens. There's a hard-wired, almost animal thing that takes over. We seem to be hard-wired with some tendency to go into a frenzy. To kind of lose it. To snap, to go wacko. The mob instinct is triggered.

I was in all the big demonstrations in Washington at the Pentagon, all the anti-Nixon rallies. ... People who had no intention of being in a violent demonstration suddenly found themselves in one.

I remember at a labor rally in Decatur [Ill.] when the police – not the police, these were rent-a-cops – when they used pepper spray on the crowd. They thought they were subduing a demonstration. What they did was incite violence. This whiff in the air of the pepper spray.

It triggers something in the glands. If you're not prepared, it triggers a, "I don't care what the hell happens, I'm going in there" feeling. A temporary madness. . . .

There's a real feeling of empowerment. A lot of chanting. A real sense of solidarity. You feel stronger and vital. Not just your voice, but your voice amplified. It's a rush. It's almost the ideal of solidarity. It's almost an ennobling situation. . . .

You're intense. I think that's one of the reasons rock concerts are so loud. There's something about shouting itself – about shouting when other people are shouting – that makes you – well, some kind of adrenaline is being poured into your system.

It's a rush. You feel strong and like you're bouncing on the pavement. I never was hurt, but I've seen people battered and they didn't even seem to feel it. I'm sure they felt it later. But it didn't slow them down. . . .

The crowd replaces the intellect. At the time, it seems like the only thing to do.

When you're part of a crowd, you have a responsibility to the group. If you were alone, you might make other choices.

You have no second thoughts about it. You don't think, "Should I maybe, should I not?" It's all you can do. It's what everybody is doing now. You couldn't, even if you wanted to. A crowd can start off one way and then go another. It colors your reading of history. You read about things that were changed by a crowd, and you realize how easy it might be to have avoided a tipping point. It all came down to this unreasoning moment, when everybody was committed. It makes you look at events that took place because of what a mob did. It was the product of a dynamic that could have gone the other way.

It's like the wind's effect on a dry dandelion. ... It could just as easily have blown east as west, left as right. It conjures up a "What if?"

PHOTO: On the night of June 12, 1991, after the Bulls won the NBA title, celebrating fans turned unruly and looted stores across the city, including this food store on West Chicago Avenue. "It's not that looting is a good thing, " says one expert. "But there's a logic to it." Tribune file photo.
PHOTO: Ammar Yaser fought hand-to-hand with looters intent on destroying his college, Baghdad University. Yaser stands inside and on top of what were books in the Islamic Studies department. KRT photo by Eric Seals/Detroit Free Press.

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