The looting crowd

In the early hours following the exit of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” from Leyte, residents staggered out of their flattened homes like zombies. But somewhere in downtown Tacloban, a small group of survivors spontaneously gathered in front of the Gaisano shopping mall.  Wielding improvised crowbars, they began to pry open the metal shutters protecting the mall’s glass doors. The din from the incessant pounding, the agitated voices, and the sound of breaking glass quickly swelled the now heaving crowd. As the doors were flung open, the tumultuous mob rushed headlong into the water-soaked mall like another deadly surge.

Elias Canetti, that astute observer of crowds in human history, calls this the “discharge”—“the moment when all who belong to the crowd get rid of their differences and feel equal.” His description of this “mysterious and universal phenomenon” permits us to imagine how in the blink of an eye individuals can suddenly shed their inhibitions, lose whatever good sense they have, and subsume their faculty of judgment to the collective sway of a mob.

“A few people may have been standing together—five, ten or twelve, not more; nothing has been announced, nothing is expected. Suddenly everywhere is black with people and more come streaming from all sides as though streets had only one direction. Most of them do not know what has happened and, if questioned, have no answer; but they hurry to be there where most other people are. There is a determination in their movement which is quite different from the expression of ordinary curiosity. It seems as though the movement of some of them transmits itself to the others. But that is not all; they have a goal which is there before they can find words for it.” (Crowds and Power)

Natural phenomena like earthquakes, storms, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and floods strike us with a ferocity that we experience as coming from outside. We forget that Nature also dwells inside us, and that not everything that we are is completely tamed by culture. There remains a menacing irrational side to our being that at times surfaces unbidden, overpowering our consciousness like a dark twin to Durkheim’s “collective conscience.” It comes out particularly during times of war, calamity, and widespread crisis—when panic and despair drive people to scavenge, steal, or sack. Sociologists note the pervasive erasure of the markers of social order and the collapse of the inner containment walls of guilt and shame, and call it “anomie”—the state of normlessness.

What crowd theory however fails to fully explain is why behavior like mass looting occurs in some places but not in others. We are told that such a phenomenon tends to be common in urban settings, where public order is a fragile facade maintained by formal institutions, but not in small communities where social control draws its power from the immediacy of face-to-face interaction. There was widespread looting in Tacloban, but one is hard-pressed to understand why the same behavior should break out in a remote town like Guiuan.

An Inquirer report (11/18/2013) tells of the shock that Susan Tan, who owns a grocery there, felt when her own town mates pillaged her store in her presence days after the storm. Expressing a forgiving attitude toward the looters, she blamed instead the slow government response for what happened. “People panicked,” she said.  “They thought no relief was coming. There was no single word from the government.”

Still, she could not hide her disappointment over her town mates’ behavior. “I was there watching and I couldn’t do anything to stop the mob. Everybody knew everybody here. There were government employees, policemen, and even my friends.” One of the looters, a policeman, forgot he was wearing the uniform of a law enforcer as he joined the unruly horde.

Ms Tan’s pained comment finds echoes in various accounts of rampant looting in more urbanized Tacloban. A TV reporter from one of the major networks recounts his interview with one of the few policemen who heroically reported for duty on that fateful day. This police officer saw the raiding of Gaisano and tried to stop it. Instead he found himself frozen in his tracks by the sight of his high school teacher walking away from the scene with a haul of looted goods.  Speechless, he looked at his old teacher in the eye, searching for an answer. What he got was an unexpected question: “Can I get you anything?”

The mapping of natural hazards is a fairly well-developed science. We now have adequate instruments to enable us to accurately plot the course and strength of a typhoon. We can more or less predict what forms of destruction a storm may bring to communities living in danger zones. But one wonders if we have sufficiently understood the strange peril we face when the collective mind snaps. I doubt if looting behavior is among the things that are listed when the state tells its citizens to brace for natural disasters.

As societies try to make sense of the haunting collapse of reason that sometimes happens in the wake of terrible disasters, it is usual to hear the old resentments and prejudices revolving around race, religion, and ethnicity resurrected as explanations. Knowing this, we need to remind ourselves that we are dealing here with a phenomenon far more complex than a storm surge. Canetti sums it up this way: “The destructiveness of the crowd is often mentioned as its most conspicuous quality, and there is no denying the fact that it can be observed everywhere, in the most diverse countries and civilizations. It is discussed and disapproved of, but never really explained.”

* * *