Had it been a terrorist attack, half of the earth's
surface would no doubt have been vaporized by American nuclear bombs by now.
Yet for all its trickery and deceit, even the Bush administration can't blame
the flattening of New Orleans on terrorists.
Nor can it hide behind a wall of red-blooded bluster, demanding bloody retaliation
against evil, for the act of violence that has left the Gulf (America's, this
time) devastated was a random act of nature. Or was it? After all, it's not
as if the southeastern United States is afflicted annually by hurricanes or
Accidents Waiting to Happen
Indeed, Hurricane Katrina was eminently predictable.
In another way, so was the terrorist onslaught of Sept. 11. For the lay meteorologists
of foreign policy who recognized well in advance that the U.S. had made itself
a target of Islamic extremists, precisely because of its military presence in
the Middle East and unconditional support for Israel, the attacks were pretty
The latter catastrophe has so far led to two wars marked by lies and an utter
lack of official accountability. But the former disaster, if we're lucky, just
might lead us out of the morass generated by Bush's reaction to the terrorists
– if, as seems far more likely this time around, the president won't be able
to evade the "accountability moment" he said had transpired successfully
with his reelection. For as commentators like Paul
Craig Roberts and Norman
Solomon have been quick to point out, the War Party's obsession with invading
Iraq has directly and needlessly exacerbated Hurricane Katrina's destructive
power – which now reflects rather poorly on their judgment.
According to the Washington
Post, the National Guard troops of the two states afflicted – Mississippi
and Louisiana – are for the most part fighting in, or recovering from, the wars
in Iraq and Afghanistan. The hurricane's massive damage is now "stretching
the limits of available manpower."
According to the article, Mississippi's National Guard currently has over 4,000
soldiers lost to the Iraq campaign, while Louisiana has about 3,000 troops in
Baghdad alone. "Missing the personnel is the big thing in this particular
event. We need our people," stated Mississippi National Guard Spokesman
Lt. Andy Thaggard to the Post. Lacking enough local troops to deal with
this massive humanitarian disaster, the Pentagon has had to call in thousands
more from distant states.
But it gets worse. As with 9/11, certain preventative measures could have been
taken beforehand that would have greatly minimized Katrina's destructive power.
While the Bush administration contradicts its own intelligence services in claiming
that that no one could have seen the terrorist attacks of 2001 coming, it is
shocking now to see how ill-prepared the government was to deal with something
that is basically an annual threat. After all, were a blizzard to strike Hawaii,
no one would blame the Honolulu Fire Department for not having stocked enough
snowplows. Yet having detailed advanced evacuation plans in an endemic hurricane
zone is something completely different.
Indeed, as Paul Craig Roberts implies, the Battle of N'Orleans is where the
president might get a crack at his second accountability moment:
"Distracted by its phony war on terrorism, the U.S. government had
made no preparations in the event Hurricane Katrina brought catastrophe to New
Orleans. No contingency plan existed. Only now after the disaster are FEMA and
the Corps of Engineers trying to assemble the material and equipment to save
New Orleans from the fate of Atlantis.
"Even worse, articles in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and
public statements by emergency management chiefs in New Orleans make it clear
that the Bush administration slashed the funding for the Corps of Engineers'
projects to strengthen and raise the New Orleans levees and diverted the money
to the Iraq war.
"Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, told
the New Orleans Times-Picayune (June 8, 2004): 'It appears that the
money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and
the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy
that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make
the case that this is a security issue for us.'"
Sadly, the "war on terror" that
every state and county cashed in on in the aftermath of Avoidable Disaster
No. 1 resulted in a needless allocation of millions of dollars to places where
they weren't likely to ever be used. This lamentable triumph of pork-barrel
politics owed as much to the greed of elected officials as it did to the total
(and continuing) failure to do honest risk assessments. Indeed, al-Qaeda in
Tiptonville, Tenn., or a hurricane in New Orleans? It's too tough to call…
A Lament for Exit Strategies
There are some debates that just shouldn't have
to exist. Often, they derive from unjustifiable wars. And so while for the past
two years the pundits have been debating the need for an "exit strategy"
for Iraq, and what such a strategy would involve, when it would be implemented,
etc., it seems that this little distraction helped to keep American leaders
firmly focused away from thinking of far more likely exit strategies in the
homeland itself. For just as shocking as the reappropriation of manpower and
material equipment for the Iraq adventure is
the apparent lack of what could less figuratively be described as an exit
strategy for New Orleans – that is, how to get the thousands of victims the
hell out of town while maintaining at least some semblance of law and order.
Essentially, what the initial reports – of unruly mobs, arson and looting,
armed gangs firing at police and aid helicopters – reveal is that securing the
exit of New Orleans resembles quite remarkably the American entrance into Baghdad.
And the horrifying
descriptions of carnage could just as well have come from any ordinary day
"[A]n old man in a chaise lounge lay dead in a grassy median as hungry
babies wailed around him. Around the corner, an elderly woman lay dead in her
wheelchair, covered with a blanket, and another body lay beside her wrapped
in a sheet."
And then the kicker:
"'I don't treat my dog like that,' 47-year-old Daniel Edwards said
as he pointed at the woman in the wheelchair. 'I buried my dog.' He added: 'You
can do everything for other countries but you can't do nothing for your own
people. You can go overseas with the military but you can't get them down here.'"
It took an unprecedented tragedy to do it, but it looks like the government's
indefensibly wrong priorities are finally starting to become obvious, even to
war supporters. It will be very interesting to see over the next few weeks and
months how the War Party can continue to justify "staying the course"
in destructive overseas missions, even as New Orleans and the southern coast
lie in ruins. In short, in its random wrath and apolitical existence, a natural
disaster may just do what Cindy Sheehan, for all her incontestable moral authority,
could not: galvanize a politically diverse majority of Americans to demand their
elected officials take care of their needs before those of foreigners.
A Specter of Self-Condemnation
And this is precisely where the spectacle of New
Orleans takes on frightening and ugly dimensions. It exists as a direct indictment
of the hubristic government's belief in limitless resources and endless wars.
It is, in fact, a ghastly manifestation of foreign policy gone wrong.
And so the hurricane's aftermath becomes a garish, distorted reflection of
all of America's modern wars rolled up into one. The busloads of refugees, and
their fetid holding pen in the Louisiana Superdome, conjure up images of the
Kosovo refugee crisis of 1999, another needless tragedy caused directly by American
bombing. The lawlessness, thievery, and gunfire on city streets are eerily reminiscent
of the wave of looting that followed American tanks into Iraq's capital in spring
of 2003. The rotting corpses and terrorized residents in New Orleans share the
same experience with ordinary people in Iraq, who continue to suffer the outcome
of America's failure to leave a country where it is clearly unwanted. And finally,
framing it all, the stunning photos of a flattened city directly evoke painful
memories of that other Ground Zero, the one that began it all, almost exactly
four years ago.
As was the case then, amidst the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center,
the specter of New Orleans exists as a reproach to a government whose foreign
policy has been very successfully in one thing – putting America last.
…And a Betrayal
There is another kind of precedent for the disaster,
of course. The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 resulted in identical
destruction, mayhem, and looting, and the National Guard was also there to help.
An editorial from that
time put their contribution in context:
"[T]he work done and still being done by the National Guard of California
will be long and gratefully remembered by the people of San Francisco and the
State. The Minute Men and the Old Continentals were the National Guard of their
"They were the National Guard (militia) that fought through the Revolution.
Our present National Guard is descended in direct official line from those citizen
soldiers that stood, yielding not, at Saratoga, Ticonderoga, Stony Point and
Yorktown, and have proved themselves worthy of their ancestors."
By ensuring that Louisiana's National Guardsmen are kept far from home in Iraq,
locked in a pointless war of attrition, prevented
from saving their own kin and ordered to kill foreigners instead, President
Bush is dishonoring this proud legacy.