Katrina: Governor Orders Troops to Shoot and Kill Looters

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco has ordered the National Guard to “shoot and kill” looters in New Orleans.

La. governor warns troops will “shoot and kill”

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco warned rioters and looters in New Orleans on Thursday that National Guard troops are under her orders to “shoot and kill” to end the rampant violence in the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Announcing the arrival of 300 Arkansas National Guard troops in New Orleans fresh from service in Iraq, Blanco said, “these troops are battle-tested. They have M-16s and are locked and loaded.” “These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will,” she said.

Update:  The above link is dead.  Here’s a similar story at Australia’s ABC.

These are desperate times which, I’m told, call for desperate measures. Having the American military shooting suspected looters on sight, however, is an outrageous precedent from which we may not recover.

Indeed, were I still on active duty, I would refuse this order as illegal. Not only does the use of the military for domestic law enforcement rather clearly violate the posse comitatus law but shooting unarmed civilians violates all the ethics of professional soldiering that I learned. It is ironic, too, that we are treating an American city suffering from the worst natural disaster in memory as a hot fire zone while our soldiers fighting in Iraq are under much, much tighter rules of engagement.

My visceral reaction to the looters and other criminals in the flood zone is the same as most: they’re scum who deserve no compassion. As this story and others make clear, though, it’s not easy to tell the vermin from the merely desperate. I don’t agree with Digby too often and disagree with most of his analysis even on this; but we simply can not devolve into a Third World dictatorship here.

It should be noted, too, that the Constitution is being thrown out the window here. Not only are basic due process rights–being charged with a crime, a trial, an attorney, the right to confront witnesses–being ignored but we’re turning relatively minor crimes into capital ones. Even with benefit of due process, theft is not something for which we execute people. Whether that’s a good thing or not is a judgment call, I suppose, but we’ve got decades of Supreme Court rulings that it’s a violation of the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on excessive punishment to execute people for less than murder.

Sadly, though, there are signs that New Orleans has devolved to Third World status:

Melancon said some of those waiting for pickup died of dehydration in the 90-degree heat that has afflicted the region since Tuesday. Despair is also affecting those in New Orleans charged with protecting the city, said State Police Superintendent Col. H.L. Whitehorn. Some New Orleans police officers have resigned rather than face the violence in the city. “It’s my understanding those who have resigned said they have lost everything and it’s not worth being shot at and losing their lives,” Whitehorn said. Whitehorn said he did not know the specific number of police officers who have quit their jobs.

The lack of numbers makes this rather difficult to evaluate. One wonders why the police superintendent wouldn’t know this, although the city police may not be under his authority. It’s sobering, though, that it takes only three or four days of hardship to turn an American city into this. It’s difficult to fathom police officers abandoning their city during the worst crisis it has ever faced and at the worst possible moment in that crisis. Iraqi troops did that when Saddam Hussein was in power but they didn’t exactly have anything worth fighting for. One wouldn’t expect this of Americans trained and sworn to protect their own.

Update: Donald Sensing, a retired Army major and a current Methodist minister, disagrees.

He notes (as do LaShawn Barber and Pajama Hadin) that similar orders were issued under similar circumstances a century ago. Certainly true. Goodness, we used to hang horse thieves, too.

Under riot conditions, shooting armed perpetrators in the midst of violence may be a necessary evil. Shooting unarmed television thieves, though, is hard to justify. And, of course, without benefit of a trial we may wind up shooting people “stealing” their own possessions.

Don adds,

I think James has confused “shoot to kill” with “shoot on sight.” I have not been able to find online the actual text of Gov. Blanco’s orders to the Guard, if indeed she has issued any written orders. Brendan Loy says that the issue is very unclear, and I think he’s right. If she hasn’t been specific in the use of deadly force — what the military calls rules of engagement (ROE)– then she has failed in her duty.


I cannot believe in my heart that any Guard commander would approve ROE in this situation that allows Guardsmen to kill civilians for any circumstances except actual self defense from armed attack — a right that police have always enjoyed — or the protection of lives of others under actual threat. It may be that the Guard and other law enforcement agents will shoot people caught in the commission of crimes if they do not heed warnings, but that remains to be seen.

One hopes sanity will indeed prevail in the form of professional soldiers selectively refusing to obey this order. I agree that soldiers and cops have every right–indeed, a duty– to shoot to defend their own lives or that of innocents. But shooting people who fail to heed a “drop that TV!” order under the color of authority is unconscionable.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Eddie Thomas says:

    The veneer of civilization is always a little thin, I suppose, but I’m guessing that New Orleans is worse than most. I’m not sure we should consider it representative.

  2. Pug says:

    I agree that this is a stupid and illegal order. Perhaps Gov. Blanco should have had some troops in New Orleans on Monday afternoon to insure order prevailed.

    Perhaps she shouldn’t be letting people stand on the freeway for days with no water, food or place to go while they watch others die.

    Perhaps she should get her head out of a certain orifice and send in a few busses to move people out. Send in a few port-a-cans and some food, water and baby formula. You know, start helping.

    And if I were a soldier, I too would refuse to shoot unarmed civilians. While I think the looting is despicable, I also think shooting someone for stealing a TV is equally despicable. What bullshit. Nice response, Governor.

  3. Charlie (Colorado) says:

    We managed to survive the shoot to kill order in San Francisco in 1906.

  4. LJD says:

    This is all a bit hard to understand for those who haven’t lived through it. I was in Long Beach, CA during the riots. A white college boy living in the Snoop-Dog district of East L.B. I will never forget the senseless destruction of property.

    A group of hispanic women joined arms in front of their fabric store to protect it (a block from my apartment). The approach worked. I hope there are such things happening in N.O., but we’re just not hearing about it.

  5. nycrepub says:

    Shoot to kill should be a policy against those who are illegally armed and firing on those trying to rescue victims. If chinook helicopters can not land because these idiots are shooting at them, then snipers should be in place to take out these morons so rescue efforts can take place. Call it what you want, but essentially martial law is essential here in order to save lives. Even if that means shooting ARMED civilians who are illegally preventing innocents from being rescued. 1-2 incidents of taking out these thugs will exponentially help the rescue and the firing on National Guardsmen will stop. This is the first step in regaining the Crescent City. No doubt, the governor of LA has erred terribly by not having contingency plans in place and not mobilizing the National Guard, but we need to deal with the realities on the ground and these armed gangs should be treated like terrorists.

  6. Dan in Michigan says:

    You shoot looters to restore order, not to dispense justice. The people of New Orleans are being terrorized by these thugs.

  7. Pug says:

    Please note I said I wouldn’t shoot unarmed civilians.

    Gov. Blanco has blown this situation big-time. Now she’s ready to start shooting people? She should resign in disgrace.

  8. Cilly Jordan, LPC, RSOTP says:

    The fact that there are so many disenfranchised people still waiting for assistance speaks loud and clear to the problem in La. The looters or lawless are people who have long been a disenfranchised group. So lets look at their reasoning; stay behind and after the storm take advantage; storm is then much more severe than they anticipated; now they need rescue; no one knows they are there; long time resentment for no one caring about their welfare; panic and trauma from the disaster event; trying to survive; looking for a way to turn powerlessness into powerful; outcome is violence and looting. Am I saying this is a pro-social way to deal with trauma? No. I’m saying its not that hard to understand the response. Shooting them is also criminal, but I guess the political response is also to have power in a powerless situation. And the biggie here is, the politicians need to have a bad guy. Bush can’t stand around and shake his fist at Katrina, she’s gone. But he can shake his fist at the “looters’ and look tough, as can the governor. So this system we are a part of is acting exactly as it always has. If we want to change it we have to take action. If we want to help these people, we need to be gathering supplies and coordinating to get them there and not wait for the government to do it. We can complain all day long while we sit and watch TV and read articles on the Internet but if we truly want to help we need to do it. I’m not just preaching. I have volunteered to do whatever is needed and I have been turned down because I don’t have the red-cross specific training. How many others are trying to help and being turned away? That’s a question that needs answering.

  9. Polef says:

    but shooting unarmed civilians violates all the ethics of professional soldiering

    James, This is an idiotic and misinformed statement. You obviously didn’t see her press conference. She was discussing the National Guard coming in to STOP VIOLENCE, not to randomly shoot “unarmed civilians.” Like in any law enforcement scenario where there is a perpetrator immediately putting someone else’s life in danger, officers can use lethal force.

    The constitution is “not being thrown out the window” here. Every law enforcement officer in the nation (to use Blanco’s words) “knows how to shoot and kill”–that is precisely what they are trained to do.

    Fueling the flame of hysteria without evidence is pretty irresponsible.

  10. From what I hear, the NO police are among the most corupt police units in the nation, so it may not be a surprise that some are abandoning their posts.

  11. James Joyner says:

    Dan: You shoot looters to restore order, not to dispense justice.

    We don’t accord state governors–or even the president–the right to decide to murder American citizens who are not convicted of crimes. It’s one thing to shoot people who are in the process of shooting others; it’s quite another to just start shooting perceived thieves.

    Polef: I merely take her words at face value. Soldiers are not trained police officers; they are trained to kill the enemy.

    Further, I grant that the intent is to murder only those perceived to be committing crimes. So what? That’s a violation of our founding principles.

  12. anjin-san says:

    Its not as if poor black folks are never shot in this country. Ask them, they are used to it.

  13. Sorry, James, I think you missed the boat here. I responded on my blog with my reasons why.

  14. Jack Ehrlich says:

    My only question is where has this governor been this whole time. Seems as though Bush has been getting lots of flack from this from his opponents. But I hear little about what those who were much closer to this thing are doing.

  15. Kit Jarrell says:

    Its not as if poor black folks are never shot in this country. Ask them, they are used to it.
    Posted by: anjin-san at September 2, 2005 13:28

    Come ON. That’s the only freaking thing you can bring to this discussion? it’s pathetic that people can’t stop whining about race and perceived inequality in the face of a national tragedy. We have better things to do.

    As for the shoot to kill order, I agree with it wholeheartedly. Control needs to be regained immediately in that city, and without an actual show of force (not just standing there holdng an M-16), those people won’t be deterred a bit. If you’re running by with a TV set and you see an armed National Guardsman, will you stop if you know he’s not allowed to shoot you? How about if you know he’s under orders to shoot you if you’re caught looting?

    Deterrence is the name of the game – not necessarily punishment. Granted, a few people will get punished, but that’s just by the nature of it. And honestly, are these lawless thugs the kind of people we want to transport to another city and help anyway?

  16. Cato says:

    I think you truly miss the point of shooting looters. The fundamental responsiblity of government is to protect society — a government that does not prevent looting is failing in its fundamental mission. Looting is insurrection, whether armed or not, and those who loot strike at those who are too weak to protect themselves — either because they have had to flee or are unarmed or not strong enough. Looting represents the law of the jungle, or Hobbe’s life of man solitary: poor, nasty, brutish and short. There is no time or sufficient manpower in these circumstances to arrest looters and take them away for trial in the ordinary course of business.

    So, yes, you shoot looters on sight. By doing so you are protecting all law abiding citizens. And the example for the encouragement of the others is clear.

  17. anjin-san says:

    Right Kit, race has nothing to do with this. That explains the thousands of white people I am looking at on TV right now who are stranded in New Orleans, desperate, miserable, or dying.

  18. ME says:

    So it’s a question of the value of goods over human life?
    And what’s the answer?? Typical, for this government.
    These murder-worthy goods, may I add, due to the damage from the flooding, are rendered nonsaleable… so it matters not if the insurance claims are ‘theft’ or due to the natural disaster
    –which, as a possible ‘act of God’, may not be covered by some insurance companies anyhow — the business owners may well come off better if their inventory WAS stolen!
    These people have lost everything. Not only their possessions, but for many their homes themselves are destroyed.
    I dare say the shots taken at the helicopter could be in direct response to the “Shoot to kill” orders — it’s only human nature, if someone is trying to kill you, you react, and usually in the same way.
    And no, neither is right.
    But what is the important thing here? Water-damaged goods ‘disappearing’ or the succor of our fellow citizens who are living the nightmare of one of the worst things that can possibly happen to a human being?
    Additionally, we don’t execute people who are suspected of, arrested for, or even convicted of theft! Now, we, without any benefits and rights of judge, jury, and due process; can just execute ‘alleged looters’ on the spot?!
    I hate to state the obvious, but these are NOT violent crimes, but merely economic! We decry the 1800’s era Britain tactics of hanging children for stealing a loaf of bread, and here we are in America, in the 3rd Millenia, doing the same thing and it’s all hunky-dory?!
    The way these priorities are being handled are in the Dick-Cheney-priority-meme… aka ridiculous!

    We are wasting our precious and limited time and resources protecting JUNK at the expense of the LIVES of our fellow citizens! Just getting potable water, basic nutrition and medical help to those stranded should be the #1 and ONLY priority at this time, and just leave the looters alone for now!

  19. TJ Jackson says:

    Would you hesitate to shoot an unarmed man about to destroy an electric grid system; destroy a bridge or open the locks on a damn? Would you hesitate to fire on an unarmed mob that had looted a hospital and therefor condemned hundreds possibly thousands to death?

    Exactly how does a soldier stand down a mob that outnumbers him perhaps a hundred to one if he feels he cannot use deadly force?

  20. tito nunez says:

    I would like to know if the shoot to kill order applies simply to the barbaric black men and women who have the audacity to “loot” from a store after being left homeless, without food and without a government to come to their aid.

    Or does it also apply to the poor white man and woman who “took” food and water from stores because they were desperate, homeless and hungry.

    I hope the blacks in New Orleans remember the woman that ordered they be “shot” in their hour of need for “stealing” “looting” “taking” (semantics) during the next election

  21. I-RIGHT-I says:

    I can’t wait for the films of the poor white men and women stealing TVs and guns, raping, murdering and shooting at emergency workers…I just can’t wait. By the way, Snopes has the scoop from the photographer that took that picture you Lefties love so much. Don’t bother reading it, it will just ruin that self righteous buzz you have going.

    One more thing my Liberal friends; how does this shoot to kill order from a female democrat square with that idiot rapper who said Bush doesn’t care about Black people?

  22. lisa says:

    I think it’s medically possible that dehydration could contribute to some of this hostile behavior. Severe dehydration can cause extreme irritability, anxiety, confusion, hallucinations and delusions.

    Maybe this doesn’t apply to the violent people in NO but it is certainly medically possible. They could be evil, heartless people who prey on the weakness of others; we know humans are capable of that. But depriving humans of water can also cause that too. Just something to keep in mind.

  23. Ben House says:

    I know I will receive some flak for this, I think…

    In response to several comments I have read here,

    The reason you see hundreds or thousands of black people looting on TV is not because the reporters are racist, it is simply because the city is populated mainly by black folks. Don’t jump to the conclusion that everyone “looting” is bad, wrong, or otherwise evil.

    Taking food and water is one thing, but how much food do you think is inside a TV or even a VCR? How about that new car? Its not the color of the people, its the attitude. I am positive that if you looked around you could find some stupid white guy stealing NON EDIBLE merchandise.

    Just my thoughts.

    Oh yeah in a side note, I am of an off white kinda tan-ish brown fading into white on my legs.. 🙂 If someone wants to be racist get specific!

  24. Dereca Blackmon says:

    10,000 people have likely died in New Orleans and you all are in a frenzy over property??? So they stole some TV’s and jewelry, so what?? Who the hell has time to be shooting people when seniors are trapped in nursing homes drowning?? You are missing the point. In addition to all the other points made about the order of law in a DEMOCRACY (remember that term?), sending the National Guard to shoot looters instead of save lives is a gross misapplication of resources. And by the way, you idiots can take personal responsibility for the shootings. Initially Blanco said she wanted to focus on saving lives instead of punishing looters (that’s a novel idea). But political pressure from dunderheads like you, urged her to be “tougher” like her counterpart in Mississippi. I hope some of you get the chance to be left behind in a natural disaster, wade through dead bodies and alligators and then get shot at by your own government. You all should be ashamed. And by the way, Kanye West was wrong, George Bush doesn’t care about POOR people.

    And before you even attempt to reply, try to drum up some facts to the contrary.

  25. jackie says:

    I don’t believe you should be shooting people who are looting items that are likely of no use anyway, with the exception of certain nonperishable food items. I saw one black guy carrying a tv that looked about 27 in. and I was like, what good is a tv when you’re surrounded by water and have no electricity? On the other hand, I discussed with my 12 and 9 yrs old children, that if we were in the same situation, I would “find food” for survival purposes and whatever else we needed to survive. You don’t need a tv to survive in a city surrounded by flood waters and no electricity. I am a black woman and have a certain opinion as such, however, I don’t believe in condoning certain actions just because the person committing them is black. One last point, isn’t rescuing people more important than shooting so-called looters? The government must get their priorities together. Oh, I’m sorry, money and material items is far more important than a group of blacks that can no longer be used as slaves!!! God Bless Everyone, One Day We Will Be Enlightened!