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The American way of death

Draped beneath a flag and accompanied by a band or floating bloated on the surface of toxic flood waters: there are different ways to die in Bush's America.

CAIRO (15 - 21 September 2005) -- People long ago abandoned the custom of making human or non-human sacrifices to ward off natural disaster. The balance of power between man and nature, though, remains the same, and against the fury of nature at its most extreme there are no superpowers. That said, not all nations are equal in their ability to deal with the aftermath of cataclysmic natural events.

America is a great power, capable of evacuating millions and of sending hundreds of thousands of young men and women on rescue operations providing, of course, those young people are soldiers and the "rescue" a military operation abroad. America presents itself across the globe as the state writ large. At home, though, for neo-conservatives -- as, indeed, for their admirers overseas -- the state is a dirty word. America is a maximalist state viewed from the outside, and a minimalist state when the perspective is from within. Tellingly, Washington had to bring troops back from Iraq to deal with the crisis in Louisiana. While there seems to be no limit to the resources the US can deploy abroad, at home it appears to be ill-equipped to deal with calamity.

The US is not a Third World country yet it suffers from a desperate shortage of domestic institutions. One might point to the Department of Homeland Security, created in the post-11 September hysteria and allocated massive powers and resources, and claim it was established to cope with exactly the kind of havoc wrought by hurricane Katrina. Homeland Security's Secretary Michael Chertoff would differ with such an assessment: in his own words, "the critical thing was to get people out [of New Orleans] before the disaster. Some people chose not to obey that order. That was a mistake on their part." Shades of social Darwinism, as The Observer ("Bush at Bay", 4 September) in which this quote was cited pointed out. There is nothing like casting the blame on the victim, who most likely had no idea of the magnitude of the threat and even less of an idea of where to go to escape it, let alone how to get there. Chertoff conveniently deflects attention away from the responsibility of the state and its sheer incompetence in providing essential services to the needy and destitute. Yet neither Homeland Security nor the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can claim they lacked advanced warning when the mayor of New Orleans could advise his city's citizens on the Sunday before the disaster struck to leave their homes.

Hurricanes are not the kind of enemy on which you can pin a face. Their victims do not stir up the will to avenge. Modern societies do not treat nature as an "other". Ancient societies did, formulating collective rites and striking alliances with gods higher up the celestial hierarchy in order to avert disaster. Nature is no longer that unfathomable mystery that gave rise to religious systems. Today science has supplanted myth and technology has taken the place of sacrifice to the gods.

When the levees that protected New Orleans from the floodwaters of the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain were breached on 30 August the potential for catastrophe was realised. Most of the city was submerged, leaving more than 100,000 people stranded in their homes. It was impossible to get even a rough estimate of how many had already died though the hundreds of bloated bodies floating on the water provided a horrifying testimony to America's shame.

The 20,000 people packed into a sports stadium had to spend a week amid the stench of decay before they were bussed to proper shelter. Food, medicine and evacuation remained distant promises, while politicians in Washington offered speeches and press conferences. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was desperate. Instead of food, he said, "they're feeding the public a line of bull and they're spinning, and people are dying down here." He pleaded with officials in Washington to "get off your asses and do something and fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country".

It is to America's shame that news came before food, the television hookup before medicine, transmission before shelter, images before the victims. And what images.

The disgrace goes deeper than the appalling indifference and incompetence of the federal government. Four days into the flood and the head of FEMA told ABC news that he had learned about the disaster victims like everyone else, from the television. He hadn't been notified officially. What more proof do we need that the world of media spectacle has become a universe unto itself.

On the ground the police appeared more concerned about protecting shops from looting than about those stranded in their homes or in the stadium. No distinction was made between shops being looted for DVD players and grocery stores raided for the water and food the government had failed to dispatch. Guards supposedly protecting the thousands of stranded stood as far away as possible, rifles at the ready, as if dealing with vast leper colonies.

When the floods began to recede America continued to handle the aftermath with all the efficiency of a Third World country. Confusion was aggravated by a lack of coordination between state and federal agencies. In the midst of this chaos priorities surfaced. As New Orleans' poor -- most of them black -- were left to fend for themselves the cameras zoomed in on the plight of the middle class whites trapped amid piles of rubbish in the stadium. The press wondered how water levels in Louisiana would impact on Bush's popularity ratings, and on the price of oil and gas. In the meantime Arab oil-producing nations scrambled to contribute emergency funds to the US, as if the US is strapped for cash. It wouldn't do to let the storm-struck Americans turn their anger against the hurricane to anger against rising oil prices and, by extension, the oil exporting states. Arab countries had already donated millions of dollars before Saudi Arabia, which custom has long dictated should set the ceiling for Arab generosity, stepped in to do the same.

All of this was happening while the fate of the poor and homeless remained pending. Apart from their impact on Bush's popularity ratings, on the settling of political scores with the Bush administration, on the relationship between rising oil prices and rising growth rates, what value do the disaster-struck have? Their lives, apparently, are without intrinsic value. Whatever significance they have derives exclusively from a set of economic and political calculations, from a fortunate coincidence that the White House is currently feeling the heat of mounting popular anger at Bush who spent the month of August holed up in his Texas ranch in order to avoid meeting the distressed mother camped outside who wanted five minutes of his time so that he could explain why her son had to die in Iraq.

The "victims of terrorism", or the relatives of soldiers killed in action, are given at least some explanation of their suffering through the invocation of patriotism, the defence of the American way. They are allowed concrete symbols, the flag draped over the coffin, the brass band that plays as the coffin is carried to a final resting place. There are rites and rituals, the paraphernalia of grief, and these are accompanied by the finely modulated voice of the politician, intended to rally hearts around the red, white and blue. For the flood victims, though, there was no such pomp and circumstance. Their last rites were the colour of their bloated bodies, accompanied by the stench of their decay and the sounds of scratching and gnawing as rats consumed their flesh. The difference is the product of mankind's hypocrisy, made all the more horrific by the hypocrisy of a consumerist media for which even the spectacle of death is a product to be placed.

Only Bush could have managed to emerge from all of this looking as dull and insensitive as he is. Some American journalists noted that if a terrorist group or foreign troops had invaded Louisiana the necessary armed forces and all the equipment necessary to meet the attack would have been rushed to the scene at the drop of his Texan hat. That, of course, is a conjecture with the benefit of hindsight and influenced by the horror of the death and by the politicisation of death. But, the record does show that Bush can be extraordinarily "cool" in a crisis. The same man who referred to the terrorists who perpetrated the 11 September attacks as "those folks" said in the wake of Katrina that he wasn't looking forward to the "trip" he had to make to the disaster zone, as though disappointed he had to cut his holiday short, but as disagreeable as it was duty called because "we're gonna have to clean up this mess." Little wonder The New York Times bristled and called the president "casual to the point of carelessness" as it questioned whether he "understood the depth of the current crisis".

Bush's colloquialisms are a part and parcel of his folksy image, but there is more to them than that. This is a president who is rarely caught without a little paper in his hand to tell him what to say, and on this occasion his colloquialisms enabled him to segue smoothly into the big lie.

"I don't think anyone anticipated the breach in the levees," he told Diane Sawyer in an interview last Thursday on ABC's "Good Morning America". Odd, considering how much has been in the press about the worst-case scenarios FEMA had presented to the Bush administration in August 2001 regarding a terrorist strike against New York, a devastating earthquake in San Francisco and massive flooding of New Orleans. If those scenarios were hypothetical the same cannot be said of the warning given earlier this year that the levees around New Orleans would not be able to withstand even a grade-three hurricane. But budgetary allocations had not been approved to make the necessary repairs and reinforcements that would protect the city against a grade-three storm. Katrina was grade four, wreaking a catastrophe for which the US was caught totally unprepared, and for one reason. The federal government has a single priority -- war abroad, combined with the fight against terrorism at home.

Source: Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM Weekly, 15 - 21 September 2005, Issue No. 760,

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