At stake in stories of disaster is what version of human nature we will accept, and at stake in that choice is how will we govern, and how we will cope with future disasters. By now, more than a week after New Orleans has been destroyed, we have heard the stories of poor, mostly black people who were “out of control.” We were told of “riots” and babies being murdered, of instances of cannibalism. And we were provided an image of authority, of control—of power as a necessary counter not to threats to human life but to unauthorized shopping, as though free TVs were the core of the crisis. “This place is going to look like Little Somalia,” Brigadier General Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard's Joint Task Force told the Army Times. “We're going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.”
As the water subsides and the truth filters out, we may be left with another version of human nature. I have heard innumerable stories of rescue, aid, and care by doctors, neighbors, strangers, and volunteers who arrived on their own boats, and in helicopters, buses, and trucks—stories substantiated by real names and real faces. So far, citizens across the country have offered at least 200,000 beds in their homes to refugees from Katrina's chaos on hurricanehousing.org, and unprecedented amounts have been donated to the Red Cross and other charities for hurricane victims. The greatest looter in this crisis may be twenty-year-old Jabbar Gibson, who appropriated a school bus and evacuated about seventy of his New Orleans neighbors to Houston.
She's also perfectly plain as to why conditions in the Convention center and the Superdome deteriorated:
... what most news outlets failed to report was that those infernos were not designed by the people within, nor did they represent the spontaneous eruption of nature red in tooth and claw. They were created by the authorities. The people within were not allowed to leave. The Convention Center and the Superdome became open prisons. “They won't let them walk out,” reported Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, in a radical departure from the script. “They got locked in there. And anyone who walks up out of that city now is turned around. You are not allowed to go to Gretna, Louisiana, from New Orleans, Louisiana. Over there, there's hope. Over there, there's electricity. Over there, there is food and water. But you cannot go from here to there. The government will not allow you to do it. It's a fact.” Jesse Jackson compared the Superdome to the hull of a slave ship. People were turned back at the Gretna bridge by armed authorities, men who fired warning shots over the growing crowd. Men in control. Lorrie Beth Slonsky and Larry Bradshaw, paramedics in New Orleans for a conference, wrote in an email report (now posted at CounterPunch) that they saw hundreds of stranded tourists thus turned back. “All day long, we saw other families, individuals and groups make the same trip up the incline in an attempt to cross the bridge, only to be turned away. Some chased away with gunfire, others simply told no, others to be verbally berated and humiliated. Thousands of New Orleaners were prevented and prohibited from self-evacuating the city on foot.” That was not anarchy, nor was it civil society.
I know there was a point when Mayor Nagin was going to take people from the Convention center across the bridge to east New Orleans, where at least it was dry. It was discussed, mapped, and diagrammed on CNN that afternoon (Thursday after the storm hit?). There seemed to be some assumption that permission from some police or military authority was neeeded. And nothing ever came of it.
In the end, she is absolutely right:
This is the disaster our society has been working to realize for a quarter century, ever since Ronald Reagan rode into town on promises of massive tax cuts. Many of the stories we hear about sudden natural disasters are about the brutally selfish human nature of the survivors, predicated on the notion that survival is, like the marketplace, a matter of competition, not cooperation. Cooperation flourishes anyway....And when we look back at Katrina, we may see that the greatest savagery was that of our public officials, who not only failed to provide the infrastructure, social services, and opportunities that would have significantly decreased the vulnerability of pre-hurricane New Orleans but who also, when disaster did occur, put their ideology before their people.
Were there looters and rapists set loose to prey like wolves on sheep in New Orleans? It doesn't matter; but if there were, that is the civil compact of a society: that we provide protection for the sheep, from the wolves. That is the same obligation we had upon invading Iraq; it is no surprise we failed it again in New Orleans. It is also no surprise our government thought first of imposing order, and only much later of removing the root cause of the disorder.
That this disaster was long in the making, that this disaster can be laid at our feet, and the feet of those we have allowed to lead us, cannot be overemphasized, and should not be a lesson lost in the days to come. We have based our society on a marketplace, and told ourselves all good will flow from the "invisible hand" which will inspire us to greater productivity and ever more luxurious creature comforts. We would do better to listen to the words of Isaiah, and consider their paradox: "Come for water, all who are thirsty; though you have no moeny, come, buy grain and eat; come, buy wine and milk, not for money, not for a price. Why spend your money for what is not food, your earnings on what fails to satisfy?"
Because that is precisely what we have done. We have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage. We have let our leaders put ideology before people, and this is the price of reckoning. Even if we take no spirtual lesson from Katrina, we need to take a civics lesson from it. This is not a "blame game." This is not looking backward and failing to "move on." This is about problem solving, and this is the problem to be solved: how do we use authority to serve us, rather than to make servants of us. That is been the question since the drafting of the Constitution. That is the bedrock question of a self-governed people.