The Indian Express – Apr 7, 1941
Looting After Raids
Many people have been surprised by the number of cases of looting after air-raids that have been reported in the papers. And what surprises them most is that the men accused of looting are so often not members of the criminal classes but citizens who have joined some branch of anti-air raid service and who have been risking lives for their country.
No doubt the cases of looting are few in comparison with the number of men and women engaged in defence work, but the fact that even a few otherwise excellent patriots can pause from their work when a building has been bombed to appropriate fieldglasses, clocks, watches and cigarette-boxes seems to throw a sinister light on human nature.
When things are lying about in wrecked shops and houses they seem to some people to be anybody’s property. “If I don’t take that hand-bag,” the female looter, says to herself, ‘somebody else will’ and she appropriates it with a good conscience. She may even convince herself that it would be a sin to waste such an opportunity to do herself good without doing anybody else any harm.
Looting is one of the oldest concomitants of war. Kipling sang of it in one of his ballads. In Belfast in the old days public-houses where freely looted during riots and a Protestant rioter did not feel that he was violating the principles of his religion in making off with a bottle of whisky from the smashed premises of a Catholic publican.
During the Dublin insurrection of 1916 there was a considerate amount of looting by people who thought they might as well take advantage of a situation for which they were not responsible.
I remember a soldier’s telling me how during the last war he was in a French town that was badly shelled and how he found himself among the debris of the chief local bank. “There I was,” he said, ‘and I had never seen so much money in my life. Wads and Wads of notes lying all over the place. ‘There’s no use leaving this here.” I said to myself ‘Somebody will come and take it’. And I stuffed as much into my pockets as they could hold. It’s the only time I have ever felt really rich.”
I do not wish to apologise for looting. Obviously, it is a crime, especially on the part of those who are on their honour to protect other people’s property. At the same time I think it is a crime which a fairly decent man of woman may in certain circumstances be tempted to commit. It is theft, but not always the theft of a born theif. It is often an appropriation of perquisites rather than stealing of the baser sort.
Most of us make distinction of this sort between one form of dishonesty and another. Few people, for example, regard poaching as being on the same level as pocket-picking. If we do not shoot or fish, we do not look on it as one of the deadly sins to steal a pheasant or a salmon. We can endure there raids on our neighbours’ property with equanimity. If we happen to fish, however, our moral values undergo a change. Anger rises in us at the news that while we were asleep young men from a neighbouring village made a raid on our precious salmon. We think of them not as amicable boys in search of adventure, but as young blackguards.
How far the ordinary human being is born honest, it is hard to judge. Few country boys are so naturally honest that they would refuse to enter a field and purloin a turnip to be eaten raw by the wayside.
One hears occasionally of domestic servants who steal and many of them do so. I fancy because they imagine that their employers are much richer than they are and will not miss what is taken. I have heard of a man servant who used regularly to give away butter, tea sugar and so forth from his employer’s larder to his friends. Probably, he felt that he was distributing charity which his employer could well afford. He was said to be a charming fellow and in most respects trustworthy.
NO MAJOR OFFENCE
The fact that we have so many words of a mitigating kind for stealing suggests that we do not always regard it as a major offence. We speak of ‘pinching’, ‘scrounging’, ‘prigging’ and (when I was a child), ‘truffing.’ I suppose people who steal ashtrays from restaurants would regard their action as ‘pinching.’ Pinching is particularly common, I imagine, where it is not an individual that is to be robbed, but an establishment. The human conscience, for example, does not appear always to function when it is a matter of cheating a railway company. There are small boys who would not rob each other but who have no scruple in stealing a sweet shop.
On the whole, it is remarkable in view of how civilisation has been built up on stealing, that human beings are so honest as they are. History is to a considerable extent a record of stolen territories and stolen treasures. And, not content with robbing foreigners, powerful men in various nations have robbed their own people.
Even today there are men who without a qualm commit that act of theft against the public—the closing of a right of way.
Finance, too, has had its share of powerful thieves—robbers of the widow and orphan, as the sentimental Victorians used to call them.
In spite of all this, however most men and women seem to me to be more or less honest. They have an instinctive antipathy to theft. No one quite likes Jacob after hearing how he stole Esau’s blessing.
It is true that people admire Robin Hood, but that is because the people he robbed were so rich that his activities were more like pinching than like stealing. As for Falstaff, he, too, is a theif whom men have taken to their hearts, the reason in his case being that he was a humorist of genius who talked magnificent prose.
As a rule, however, we like other people to be honest. Honesty makes for the general convenience to such a point that it is almost indispensable in human society. If we were all thieves we should have to keep all our possessions under lock and key, as some men lock their whisky in a tantalus. We should not dare to leave our first editions lying about for fear a visitor might make off with them. We should not be able to give a dinner party without apprehension, because one of the guests might pocket some precious pieces of silver. We should have to keep a constant watch on our gardens for marauders among the flowers.
A police system in such a society would be a waste of money for, presumably, the police would be as dishonest as the rest of us.
Perhaps it was because they dreaded the possibility of such a state of things—in which nobody could trust anybody—that men invented those severe laws for the enforcement of conventional honesty, as a result of which a man could be hanged or transported for life for stealing a wretched forty-shillings worth of somebody else’s property.
There is nothing truer than the excellent proverb, instilled into the minds of the young—’Honest is the best policy.’ It is, indeed, the only possible policy for a happy community. And I am sure we should all be better if we gave up not only stealing but pinching, scrounging, prigging, truffing and looting. It would be much easier, I imagine—or, at least. I hope—than giving up tobacco.