Houston is under water.
Hurricane Harvey has claimed at least 14 lives, and officials fear that number will grow. Hundreds have been displaced, and hundreds more have been left without basic utilities. Three days into one of the worst hurricanes to land on U.S. soil, and some Texans have grown desperate.
ABC News' Tom Llamas reported Tuesday seeing a group of Houstans allegedly "looting" an abandoned supermarket. Llamas noted later on social media that he reported the group to the authorities, including the Coast Guard, who responded in large numbers.
Many social media users reacted furiously to Llamas' tweets. After all, they said, there are bigger concerns in Houston than a small group of so-called looters. Not everyone on social media agreed, however, as a few argued it was Llamas' civic duty to report the "looters."
This is a generous, but wrongheaded, spin. On the basis of what we know, Llamas' many critics are in the right.
First, it seems wrong to refer to those Houstans as "looters." The word "looter" indicates clearly immoral, indefensible behavior. A looter is a thief. A looter acts on opportunity, not necessity. We don't know that those Houstans are thieves, and we can't call them looters based on what Llamas tweeted Tuesday. If they were in that supermarket only to appropriate essentials, they did nothing wrong.
In times of crisis, it is morally licit to commandeer another's property in order to avoid a worse outcome (i.e., death). Christian theologians and the modern U.S. legal system have agreed on this point for years.
"In cases of need all things are common property, so that there would seem to be no sin in taking another's property, for need has made it common," St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the Summa Theologiae.
He added, "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."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church likewise argues:
The seventh commandment forbids theft, that is, usurping another's property against the reasonable will of the owner. There is no theft if consent can be presumed or if refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods. This is the case in obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing . . .) is to put at one's disposal and use the property of others.
The modern legal system, born of English Common Law, largely recognizes this line of reasoning, and adds that there ought to be some form of compensation. The law also asks that the taker prove that the appropriation was necessary.
As far as we can tell based on Llamas' own account, the so-called Houston looters weren't seen lifting flat-screen televisions, designer handbags or other luxury, non-essential items. They weren't seen cleaning out a Versace store or even a Best Buy. They were hitting up a supermarket, which is where one goes for essentials like water, food (much of which will likely go bad anyway) and toiletries. In other words, they appeared to be acting out of necessity as opposed to opportunity.
We don't know yet what the Houston "looters" took, but it seems there are some safe assumptions that can be made about what they were looking for in a supermarket in the middle of a deadly hurricane. Hopefully, those so-called looters will do right by that store and pay later for what they took.
Houston is in the middle of a natural catastrophe that would certainly seem to qualify as an "imminent danger" necessitating drastic action, including commandeering essentials from an abandoned supermarket.
For now, and until we know whether they took non-essentials, it seems wrong to accuse them outright of morally illicit behavior, and to brand them as "looters." It also seems wrong to divert essential emergency responders to crack down on what was likely only a group of people lifting essential goods during a natural disaster.
Houston is in trouble, and its residents need all the help they can get. If some of them decide to commandeer basic essentials to make it through the day, it is not morally wrong. Indeed, so long as it's done out of genuine necessity and urgency, it is morally licit.