"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)
Wednesday, August 31, 2005
There is an obvious truth here: Taking bread and fresh water from an abandoned grocery store in the face of overpowering hunger and thirst is qualitatively different from "liberating" a stereo from Circuit City. At least, it seems to be, when viewed from the demand side; on the other hand, when viewed from the supply side, both the bread and the stereo actually belong to someone else - and that "someone else" is likely in pretty dire straits him- or herself. In fact, given the tiny profit margin in the grocery industry vs. the relatively large profit margin in the consumer electronics industry, the bread-looter is probably doing greater damage. On the other hand, bread goes stale while stereos don't, so the actual calculus is - ooooh, my head hurts!
I only mention this because I recall my experiences living in Los Angeles during the 1992 riots. As I recall, based on my memory of anecdotal evidence from the time - and I am perfectly prepared to be smacked down by someone with actual statistics at hand - the most commonly looted items in L.A. were (1) shoes, (2) disposable diapers, (3) liquor, (4) guns, and (5) consumer electronics. And I remember thinking that stealing diapers and shoes (remember, we're not talking about Jimmy Choo or John Fluevog here; it was Payless Shoe Source that got cleaned out) reeked of desperation, but the others were about nothing but greed.
But then I got thinking a little more - suppose you're the guy who stole that big ass bag of Pampers. You don't feel especially good about it, but hell, if you don't take them, someone else will, and the baby's not going to stop peeing while you mull it over. So you take the Pampers, and maybe a bag of Fritos because your stomach has been growling since the Church's Fried Chicken shut down yesterday afternoon 'cause of the riots and all and you gave the last of the Rice-A-Roni that you had in the house to your wife and kids. And now, a line has been crossed. You're an outlaw. And you hate yourself for it. So you grab that bottle of Chivas on your way out to dull the pain a bit. And next thing you know, you're standing outside a Payless Shoe Source with a big, broken window. And one thing leads to another.
So now the kid has diapers, and you got yourself a pair of those $11.99 Adidas knockoffs that you've been needing since your last pair wore through at the soles, but you feel like shit because you're nothing but a common thief now, and also you're a little drunk from the half-bottle of Chivas you already swigged, and all of a sudden, you hear shots in the distance. Or maybe it's just someone's car backfiring, but it sure sounds like shots, and you're scared because the cops couldn't get to your neighborhood even if they tried (and there's no reason to think they're gonna try very hard, because they never do even when there aren't riots in the streets), and hell, there's a pawnshop with a cheap 9mm in the window and you're no better than a punk-ass thief anyway (on account of those diapers you already took - why the hell did you do that? - you were raised better!), and there's a brick in the street laying right there that's just the right size and weight to go through that window, and now you've got some protection, at least.
And at this point, why not stop at Circuit City and get yourself a nice little TV so you can watch it all go down once you get back home?
Which is not to excuse theft. Stealing other people's stuff is wrong, and it's inexcusable. Except we do excuse it when we start to talk about how it's understandable that someone would take a jug of water from the abandoned 7-11 when the city mains are dry and the person who takes it hasn't had access to clean water in 48 hours. But we have to remember that the jug of water belongs to someone else - someone who already paid hard-earned money for it, and who probably has kids at home who need diapers of their own.
My cousin Ed thinks a lot about the nature of "property," and how it's ironic that lots of people get all agitated about the idea of protecting their property from the government, when in fact "property" is best defined as "that which you can hold on to, either by force of your own strength or by force of government protection." All this talk of "good" looting and "bad" looting is nothing but a pack of rationalizations - it's all just theft, and none of it is "good" if you're the guy whose stuff is getting looted, while none of it is "bad" if you're the guy who needs a quart of Chivas to deal with the notion that you just stole a big ass bag of Pampers, and your mother would whip your ass if she knew. Which reminds me of a line from one of the greatest baby-boomer navel-gazing movies of all time:
Michael: I don't know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They're more important than sex.
Sam: Ah, come on. Nothing's more important than sex.
Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?
And now, I think I'll go get myself a bag of Fritos. I'll even pay for them.