Looting and civic culture

Struck by calamity, a nation may be able to withstand the most horrific loss of lives and the most extensive destruction of homes, factories and farms, public facilities and private property. But, perhaps, nothing brings more distress or leaves a deeper trauma on society than the descent to barbarism of those who have survived. This is why heroism, selflessness, and compassion under such circumstances have an immediately uplifting effect on everyone else. Such behavior is of a piece with the stoic discipline of the solitary individual who, in the face of seeming social collapse, keeps personal honor intact.

Supertyphoon “Yolanda” began battering Samar and Leyte early morning on Friday. In the desolate stillness of the ensuing hours, amid the dead bodies and the debris, some people began forcibly opening stores, groceries, and a shopping mall, taking away food supplies, water, and clothes. One might call this scavenging, and rationalize it as a desperate act of survival. But, in an instant, the mob grew and started carting away consumer durables like TV sets, washing machines, and refrigerators. One man was seen loading a wide-screen TV set onto his sport utility vehicle, as if he had gone bargain-hunting on a normal day. This is where analysts draw the line between scavenging and looting.

All it takes for ordinary people to join the riot and forget their shame and self-respect is for someone to start it. A few may hesitate and even attempt to stop what is about to happen. But soon their voices are drowned by those who begin to believe they represent all those in need. This delusion induces a warped sense of entitlement that overrides all decency. In that crucial moment, when the first looted goods are thrown in the direction of the gathering mob, the individual is asked to choose between barbarism and culture.

As insidious as it is, there is in fact nothing extraordinary about the instinct that underpins all looting behavior. We see it in our streets almost every day—in the tendency of the Filipino driver to break out of his lane, start a counterflow, or claim road space on unpaved portions of an expressway, at the first sign of a traffic jam. The sense of entitlement that grips him, born ironically out of an affinity with suffering, trumps all rules of order, beginning with the fundamental rules of queuing.

Strangely enough, in the light of the issues we face in our country, the other word for looting is plunder. It is what happens when a victorious army takes over the land of the defeated. They pillage, they ransack, they plunder and they rape—during that brief interval when the only law that operates is the law of the jungle. They do it not only because they can but also because they feel entitled.

Some of our lawmakers are not really so different in mindset: They feel entitled to plunder the public treasury because, in their fevered minds, not unlike the looters whipped up by Yolanda, they have suffering constituents to take care of. The self-righteousness that accompanies their criminal act pacifies their conscience and makes them impervious to criticism. They think that those who criticize them know nothing about the realities on the ground.

I do not mean to imply by these observations that the looting in Tacloban is not a cause for serious alarm. I believe it is. But we could easily exaggerate its magnitude and overreact to it in a way that justifies the use of excessive force. This seems to be the drift of those who are calling for the declaration of martial law in the disaster-stricken regions of Central Visayas. They fear the barbarians at the gates—those who, in the words of Zygmunt Bauman, are viewed as “sitting in ambush inside the fortress of the civilized world and waiting for their moment to take revenge for the blows inflicted upon them by the civilizing process.”

We would be committing a fundamental mistake in perception if at any moment we thought that the main problem in the Visayas today is the breakdown in the peace and order situation rather than the immediate rescue of the disaster’s survivors from the real dangers of starvation and disease. There will always be opportunists everywhere who take advantage of disturbances in daily life to carry out their predatory schemes. But they are a small minority who cannot show their faces in public.

We ought not to add demoralization to the misfortunes of the Taclobanons by highlighting the looting that has taken place in their community, as if this is what defines them. While it is natural to feel disgust over the looting that took place in the aftermath of Yolanda, especially when viewed alongside the grace and serenity of the Japanese in the wake of the March 2011 tsunami, we must rather draw inspiration from the courage and the selflessness of the many who helped their neighbors even as they lost their own families. For it is these traits that bind us together as a people.

The outpouring of help from abroad has been heartwarming. This is due in no small measure to the dignity with which we have borne our sufferings. Instead of being paralyzed by the enormity of this calamity, we have summoned all our remaining strength—each one of us in his/her own way—to assist our countrymen. Never before have I seen our nation come together in such a determined way to face a common task. That, to me, is what culture is about.

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