The term “looting” refers to the stealing of goods, usually during a war or a riot and often following a natural disaster. For example, looting often occurs in the aftermath following a hurricane. In flooded areas, looters steal items like electronics from vacant stores because there is no one around to supervise the store and prevent thieves from stealing. To explore this concept, consider the following looting definition.

Definition of Looting


  1. The act of stealing goods during a war or riot, or in the aftermath immediately following a natural disaster, like an earthquake or hurricane.


1780-1790         Hindi    (lūṭ)

What is Looting?

The meaning of looting refers to the act of stealing goods during a war, a riot, or in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Examples of looting include the stealing of a television from an electronics store after a hurricane, or soldiers lifting food from a local market in a war zone.

Other terms for looting include “pillaging,” “ransacking,” and “plundering.” Names for the kinds of goods obtained by looting include “booty,” “plunder,” or “spoils.” Sometimes, individuals are stealing things they need in the wake of a disaster, but more often than not it is straight-up robbery.

Types of Looting

There are a few different types of looting. The most common of the types of looting is that which individuals engage in during armed conflict. Another of the types of looting includes archaeological removal.

Armed Conflict

Looting that occurs during armed conflict is the most common. There are two reasons for this. First, soldiers supplement their income with the “booty” they pillage during the war. Second, any “spoils” discovered after clearing a war zone can become prizes of war, or a sort of memento commemorating the event. Historical figure Genghis Khan was famous for saying there was nothing better than to defeat one’s enemy, and then rob him of his wealth.

Archaeological Removal

Archaeological removal, also known as “grave robbery,” involves the stealing of artifacts by either individual thieves or foreign nations. Foreign nations typically engage in archaeological removal for the prestige associated with being the one to make such a “scientific discovery.”

An example of looting when discussing archaeological removal may refer to the stealing of valuables from Egyptian tombs, for instance. In many of these examples of looting, however, the confronted looter has returned the stolen property to the countries who rightfully own it.

Looting Laws

There are looting laws in place to deter individuals who might otherwise consider stealing property that does not belong to them. Looting laws are similar to laws dealing with robbery or burglary. Depending on how the individual engages in looting determines the form of punishment he risks. For example, looting is a crime punishable as a misdemeanor or a felony.

The problem with looting laws is that the police can only charge someone with a crime if they can catch him in the act. Looting, however, typically occurs when the police have more important things to worry about, like saving people from floods following a natural disaster.

Because people are aware of this fact, they often try to protect their valuables from looters. However, this is dangerous because, if looters are willing to break the law to steal another person’s property, they may have no problem trying to hurt those who stand in their way.

Looting During a Natural Disaster

Looting examples often pop up during, or in the aftermath of, a natural disaster. While one such reason may be because perpetrators see it as a crime of opportunity, other individuals loot because they need items they cannot otherwise buy when stores are vacant. For instance, if a father needs food and toiletries for his children, but there is no one around to man the store, he may just steal the items he needs, rather than forcing his family to go without.

Looting examples are often prominent in evacuation zones. This is because there is no one around for miles. Looters then believe there is no one around to catch them, and so they have nothing to lose. They then feel empowered to steal either because they need to or because they want to.

Media Coverage

The media tends to blow looting examples out of proportion. The result is that media coverage of “looting” alarms the public for no reason. Such examples of looting illustrate how biased media coverage is rooted in race relations. Consider the following instance of looting during a natural disaster, wherein the media coverage varied considerably:

The Associated Press covered a story wherein a young black boy was walking through chest-deep water after allegedly “looting a grocery store” in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Agence France-Presse (an international news agency), however, covered a similar story, reporting that a man and a woman were wading through chest-deep water after “finding” bread and soda at a local grocery store.

For this reason, many feel that “looting” is a loaded word, and that the media uses it to jump to conclusions without thoroughly investigating the truth about a story. Looting during a natural disaster is less common than the media would have people believe.

Looting Example Involving Stolen Art

An example of looting that reached the U.S. Supreme Court involved art stolen by the Nazis, covered in the matter of Republic of Austria v. Altmann. Here, Maria Altmann sued Austria in a U.S. Federal Court for the recovery of several valuable paintings the Nazis had stolen from her uncle. The Nazis then placed the paintings in a governmental museum. Her story went on to become the subject of three documentaries.


Altmann had already tried to sue the museum in Austria, but the court dismissed her case. This was due to a law in Austria that required plaintiffs to pay filing fees equal to a percentage of the amount recoverable. In Altmann’s case, her filing fee would have been over a million dollars, so she abandoned the suit, and the court dismissed it by default. The Austrian courts later reduced the fee to $350,000, but this was still too steep for Altmann, so she dropped her Austrian case.

District Court

Altmann then brought her case to America under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 (FSIA). Under this act, individuals could file suit against foreign nations responsible for cases involving property stolen in violation of international law.

Austria countered that the FSIA did not apply to Altmann’s case because the Nazis had taken the paintings during a time when the U.S. would have barred such a suit. Austria based its argument on the fact that the Act did not specify whether individuals could take action retroactively.

The district court, however, agreed with Altmann and held that the FSIA could apply to cases retroactively. Austria appealed, however the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower Court’s decision.

U.S. Supreme Court

The case escalated to the U.S. Supreme Court, which then had to decide whether the FSIA could, in fact, apply to cases retroactively. The Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that yes, it could. Despite there being no direct mention of retroactive action in the FSIA, the Court held that there were enough implications throughout the Act to strongly suggest that the Act permitted retroactivity.

Said the Court:

“We conclude by emphasizing the narrowness of this holding. To begin with, although the District Court and Court of Appeals determined that §1605(a)(3) covers this case, we declined to review that determination.[Citations omitted.] Nor do we have occasion to comment on the application of the so-called “act of state” doctrine to petitioners’ alleged wrongdoing. Unlike a claim of sovereign immunity, which merely raises a jurisdictional defense, the act of state doctrine provides foreign states with a substantive defense on the merits.

Under that doctrine, the courts of one state will not question the validity of public acts (acts jure imperii) performed by other sovereigns within their own borders, even when such courts have jurisdiction over a controversy in which one of the litigants has standing to challenge those acts. [Citations omitted.]

Petitioners principally rely on the act of state doctrine to support their assertion that foreign expropriations are public acts for which, prior to the enactment of the FSIA, sovereigns expected immunity. Brief for Petitioners 18—20. Applying the FSIA in this case would upset that settled expectation, petitioners argue, and thus the Act “would operate retroactively” under Landgraf. [Citation omitted.] But, because the FSIA in no way affects application of the act of state doctrine, our determination that the Act applies in this case in no way affects any argument petitioners may have that the doctrine shields their alleged wrongdoing.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Misdemeanor – A criminal offense less serious than a felony.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.