Following the devastation in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina, bands of looters are running rampant throughout the city. Things have gotten so bad that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin “ordered virtually the entire police force to abandon search-and-rescue efforts and stop thieves who were becoming increasingly hostile.”
According to reports, “Looters used garbage cans and inflatable mattresses to float away with food, clothes, TV sets — even guns. Outside one pharmacy, thieves commandeered a forklift and used it to push up the storm shutters and break through the glass. The driver of a nursing-home bus surrendered the vehicle to thugs after being threatened.”
In the newest developments, looters are taking a cue popularized in the controversial game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. A common strategy in that game is to wreak havoc, wait for emergency personnel and ambulances to arrive, and then kill the rescue workers as well. This tactic has been seen in terrorist activities around the world. For example, in Iraq, “insurgents had planned to detonate the car bomb first , and then the two vest bombers would target responding Iraqi soldiers, police, and rescue workers.” (source archived)
The evacuation of victims from the Superdome in New Orleans has been delayed after shots were fired at a military helicopter. Other reports include that of a rescue team: “When a medical evacuation helicopter tried to land at a hospital in the outlying town of Kenner, the pilot reported that 100 people were on the landing pad, and some of them had guns.”
Richard Zeuschlag, head of Acadian Ambulance, which was handling the evacuation of sick and injured people from the Superdome, said that the pilot was “was frightened and would not land.” He said medics were calling him and crying for help because they were so scared of people with guns at the Superdome.
The Christian tradition has dealt with the question of “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” In the situation of extreme need, such as that of Jean Valjean of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Thomas Aquinas writes, “If the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another’s property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery.”
This judgment is made based on a view of property rights that is not absolute, but rather limited by the Christian concept of stewardship. Aquinas states, “Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need.” The prerogative of individual prudence of how to manage and distribute one’s own goods can be trumped by the extreme and urgent need of another person.
Even so, the kinds of things that are being taken by looters in New Orleans hardly qualify as meeting a “manifest and urgent” need. Taking food and water when you are on the verge of starvation and death is one thing. Breaking in to a store so you can score some more guns is quite another. Somehow I don’t think that taking a Glock or a TV set meets Aquinas’ criteria.