Looting (Hindi lūṭ, akin to Sanskrit luṭhati, [he] steals; also Latin latro, latronis [Sp. ladrón], "thief"), to rob, sacking, plundering, despoiling, or pillaging is the indiscriminate taking of goods by force as part of a military or political victory, or during a catastrophe or riot, such as during war, natural disaster, or rioting. The term is also used in a broader (some would argue metaphorical) sense, to describe egregious instances of theft and embezzlement, such as the "plundering" of private or public assets by corrupt or greedy authorities. The proceeds of all these activities can be described as loot, plunder, or pillage.

Looting originally referred primarily to the plundering of villages and cities not only by victorious troops during warfare, but also by civilian members of the community (for example, see War and Peace, which describes widespread looting by Moscow's citizens before Napoleon's troops enter the town, and looting by French troops elsewhere; also note the looting of art treasures by the Nazis during WWII). Piracy is form of looting organized by ships on the high seas outside the control of a sovereign government. With the enactment of the Hague Convention of 1907 and the Geneva Convention of 1949, it is a crime to take or destroy real or personal property during an occupation unless it is "absolutely necessary".

During a disaster, police and military authorities are sometimes unable to prevent looting when they are overwhelmed by humanitarian or combat concerns, or cannot be summoned due to damaged communications infrastructure. Especially during natural disasters, some people find themselves forced to take what is not theirs in order to survive. How to respond to this is often a dilemma for the authorities. In other cases, looting may be tolerated or even encouraged by authorities for political or other reasons.

Measures against looting

In many countries, even in Western democracies that otherwise ban the death penalty, extraordinary measures may be taken against looters, during times of crisis. Looters may be summarily shot by the police, army, or property owners. Extraordinary measures, combined with an impressive show of force, help to discourage looting and to disperse crowds that would otherwise find a normal show of force non-threatening. This is also common police practice in discouraging potential riots – which are often associated with looting – from escalating.

The shooting of looters may also prevent further damage to the economy. One perspective is that this also shows the relative value of economy vs. "human life" in some societies.

Looting around the world

  • Following the death of Valentinian III in 455, the Vandals invaded and extensively looted the city of Rome.
  • After the fall of Constantinople in 1204, the crusaders looted the city and transferred its richness to Italy.
  • In 1664 the Maratha leader Shivaji sacked and looted Surat. Surat was under sack for nearly three weeks, in which the army looted all possible wealth from Mughal and Portuguese trading centers.
  • During the American Civil War, the New York Draft Riots (July 13-17, 1863) began as protests against President Abraham Lincoln's Enrollment Act of Conscription drafting men to fight in the ongoing war. Considered by some to be the worst civil unrest in American history, the riots included 50,000 participants and lasted several days, claiming hundreds of lives and destroying millions of dollars in property. The violent demonstration could not be contained by the civil police force, and required the intervention of regiments of the New York State Militia, who marched back to New York from the battlefield of Gettysburg, to restore civil order.
  • During World War II, both Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan engaged in massive and systematic looting of valuables worth tens of billions of dollars. See:
  • In occupied Germany after World War II the allies looted massive amounts of German intellectual property, without crediting it as "reparations"., (See also Operation Paperclip)
  • In 1977 the New York Blackout resulted in massive rioting and looting throughout the city of New York.
  • In 1992, during the Rodney King riots, widespread looting occurred in Los Angeles, California. Some store owners guarded their stores with personal firearms.
  • During the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997-98, lootings occurred in many parts of Indonesia.
  • After the United States occupied Iraq, the absence of Iraqi police and the reluctance of the US to act as a police force enabled looters to raid homes and businesses, especially in Baghdad, most notably the Iraqi National Museum. During the looting, many hospitals were stripped of nearly all supplies. However, upon investigation many of the looting claims were in fact exaggerated. Most notably the Iraqi National Museum in which many curators had stored important artifacts in the vaults of Iraq's central bank. Looting also occurred on a grand scale at a number of archaeological sites across Iraq. Sites were allegedly being destroyed and objects removed numbering in the tens or hundreds of thousands.
  • In 2005 in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina there was massive looting, with police even joining in in some cases.

Looting by type

Archaeological removals

Looting can also refer to antiquities formerly removed from countries by outsiders, such as some of the contents of Egyptian tombs which were transported to museums in Europe. Other examples include the obelisks of Pharaoh Amenhotep II, in the (Oriental Museum, University of Durham, United Kingdom), Pharaoh Ptolemy IX, (Philae Obelisk, in Wimborne, Dorset, United Kingdom) Recent controversies include the Elgin Marbles, presently in the collection of the British Museum and the claim by Greece that they should be returned.

Looting of Native American archaeological sites

Throughout the history of the United States Native American archaeological sites have been looted, destroying religious sites and relics that date back several hundred years. Many Indian burial sites and sacred grounds have been systematically plundered and destroyed until the 1957 dispute about the Gasquet-Orleans Road. The GO road in what is now the Six Rivers National Forest in the Siskyou Mountain Range was the first logging project that raised public Indian opposition. After several legal disputes and lawsuits, including the 1978 Indian Religious Freedom Act, the case was decided at the Supreme Court.

in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) became the primary federal legislation pertaining to graves and human remains in archaeological contexts. The act "establishes definitions of burial sites, cultural affiliation, cultural items, associated and unassociated funerary objects, sacred objects, cultural patrimony, Indian tribes, museums, Native Americans and Native Hawaiians, right of possession and tribal land.

In 2002 Federal grand jurors have accused two men, Steven Scott Tripp, 40, of Farmington, and William Thomas Cooksey, 53, of Union, of looting and violating the integrity of an American Indian burial site at southeast Missouri's Wappapello Lake. The looters "illegally excavated, removed, damaged and defaced archaeological resources, and that by doing so they caused at least $1,000 in damage. Gary Stilts, the Army Corps' operations manager there, estimated the damage to be about $14,000". Stilts said about the looting:

It's a sacred thing. None of us would want anyone digging in our ancestor's grave".

In 1995, authorities were informed about the looting of Elephant Mountain Cave, located on government property in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Jack Lee Harelson, a former insurance agent, looted the site for years, uncovering two burial sites, grave goods, obsidian blades and deer-hoof rattles. Harelson decapitated the two 2000 year old corpses and buried the heads in plastic garbage bags in his backyard. In 1996 a federal court in Oregon found Harelson guilty of corpse abuse and possession of stolen property, resulting in a $20,000 fine and 30 days in jail. (The conviction of corpse abuse was later revoked because the statute of limitations had expired.) In 2002 a federal administrative judge issued a civil penalty of $2.5 million for Harelson for destruction of archaeological resources.

James Patrick Barker, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) archaeologist for the state of Nevada, describes the Elephant Mountain Cave as one of the most significant sites of the Great Basin. One pair of sandals plundered by Harelson was later estimated to be 10.000 years old, making them one of the oldest pieces of footwear worldwide.

On December 5, 2005 six Ohio residents, Daniel Fisher, 41, and Thomas J. Luecke, 40, of Cincinnati; Richard Kirk, 56, of Stout; Joseph M. Mercurio, 44, and Tanya C. Mercurio, 43, of Manchester; and David Whitling, 47, of Bellefontaine, entered federal ground to dig for artifacts, using "rakes and digging implements to disturb the surface of the ground, creating holes and displacing archaeological sediment in violation of the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act". The looted site at Barren River Lake includes Early Woodlands ceramics dating back roughly to 1500 to 300 B.C. They looters were sentenced to probation by Judge Thomas B. Russell in federal court after pleading guilty.

Looting of industry

In the aftermath of the Second World War Soviet forces had engaged in systematic plunder of Germany, including the Recovered Territories which were to be transferred to Poland, stripping it of valuable industrial equipment, infrastructure and factories and sending them to the Soviet Union.



  • Abudu, Margaret, et al., "Black Ghetto Violence: A Case Study Inquiry into the Spatial Pattern of Four Los Angeles Riot Event-Types," 44 Social Problems 483 (1997)
  • Curvin, Robert and Bruce Porter, Blackout Looting (1979)
  • Dynes, Russell & Enrico L. Quarantelli, "What Looting in Civil Disturbances Really Means," in Modern Criminals 177 (James F. Short, Jr. ed. 1970)
  • Green, Stuart P., "Looting, Law, and Lawlessness," 81 Tulane Law Review 1129 (2007)
  • Mac Ginty, "Looting in the Context of Violent Conflict: A Conceptualisation and Typology," 25 Third World Quarterly 857 (2004)

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