Today’s headlines include the instruction of Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte to the security escort of the relief convoy heading to Tacloban from Davao. If swarmed by looters who have attacked and ransacked other relief convoys, the standing order is to warn the looters that defensive force will be used. If the looters don’t listen, shoot the legs first.
The other day, somebody related how she heard our town mayor on radio, saying that there are incidents of looting, including ATM machines, in the affected areas. That’s impossible, I said. My kababayan could never do such a thing. Samar and Leyte, facing the Pacific Ocean, have always taken the brunt of storms. We have gone through a lot of storms and other disasters. Yolanda is just another typhoon. People would never engage in looting.
But the news slowly revealed the error in my assumptions. The images on TV indeed show looting. Yolanda (Haiyan) — in terms of strength, scope and severe devastation — is not like any other typhoon.
On the legal front, the debate is whether the individuals who engaged in looting in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda have criminal liability. Some say it’s looting plain and simple. It speaks of the character of the people involved. They point to the orderly conduct of the people of Japan even after the tsunami destruction years back. They say looting cannot be condoned. If no case will be filed against the looters, it’s because the complainants and the government choose not to, and not because there’s no criminal liability.
Others say that it’s a matter of survival. If you kill someone while defending yourself, you are not criminally liable. Self defense. If you kill someone while defending others, there is no criminal liability. The law recognizes the instinct for self-preservation. There is no criminal liability when people forcibly get food to survive. Super Typhoon Yolanda, labelled by some as the strongest typhoon in known human history to hit land, flattened the entire city and crippled even the local government unit. Not enough first responders. Breakdown of authority. No electricity. No communication. Roads destroyed. Food and water, any stockpile intended to tide the people for the next days, have been wiped out by the typhoon and the storm surge. Delay in the government rescue/relief efforts.
People must survive. The lack or absence of food and water, coupled with the trauma after a horrific event, triggers something in the mind that leads people to do what is not considered normal in ordinary times. I lost count of prisoners languishing in jail because they stole milk or medicine, or money to pay for the hospital, when their child is sick. It’s the same instinct to survive. Can it be argued that stealing in Tacloban in the aftermath of Yolanda is different from stealing to save a child’s life in some other time?
What’s scary is the fact that owners of establishments can also use corresponding force to defend their property and their persons. If they are swarmed by the looters, their lives in grave danger, they are equally justified to shoot the looters.
What’s scary is the statement made by some national officials that looting of food is understandable while looting of non-basic items like appliance is not. This will become a template for future disasters. We don’t expect typhoons, earthquakes and other calamities to spare the Philippines in the future. Is it ok to loot food, water and other essentials when the government takes some time respond?
What’s scary is the inadequacy, or total absence, of government contingency plans. Sure, a super typhoon will ravage all citizens, government official or not. It’s only human for the police and other authorities to take care or look for family members swept by the sea. It’s understandable for local government to break down with the scale of destruction brought upon by a calamity like Super Typhoon Yolanda. But because our country is constantly visited by an endless parade of calamities, natural or otherwise, it’s not wrong to expect that government must have mastered the art of rapid response, redundant systems and multiple-layered contingency planning.
What’s more scary is the terrifying possibility of a Big One hitting Metro Manila, the hub of government agencies and the home of millions. The resultant chaos would be staggering. If it takes some time for the central government to decisively respond to and contain the chaos in a distant place flattened by a calamity, what happens if that central government is the same one flattened by another catastrophe?
No problem because looting is ok. Is it also ok to shoot the looters?