Wednesday, August 31, 2005
If you, like me, were slowly knitting your way through your first cardigan sweater and watching the coverage of the aftermath of Katrina, you might have been struck by how, at about eight o'clock the coverage shifted from the massive devastation and death along the Gulf Coast, the unbearable stories of death and the unbelievable stories of survival, to grilling public officials about "widespread" looting. It was like someone flipped a switch and now the story was going to be about looters, not about victims, when of course, those are the same people. People who lost everything in the hurricane and the flood in New Orleans are the ones looting. There aren't any outside bands of bad guys coming in to swarm down on Walmart and steal diapers and dry shoes and dry clothes and food. Those are people whose whole worlds are destroyed. Why are we vilifying them? Chris Wage at My Quiet Life has been on this from the beginning, pointing out how the media was already framing people staying in the city as them "opting" to remain, when really, if you don't have a car or extra money or relatives who live elsewhere, what options do you have? Boing Boing spells it out even more clearly, talking about how the evacuation plan for the city seemed to be contingent on everyone being able to fund their own evacuations. The people I saw on MSNBC and FoxNews looting were black. Partially, as Boing Boing points out, this is because most of the poor people in New Orleans are black. Partially, as Atrios points out, it's because, according to the media (the AP in this case), black people "loot" and white people "find." But I think it has a great deal to do with the fact that there are a lot of bodies down there, floating around in the streets, crushed under buildings, or suffocating as you read this in their attics. There is no sense to be made of it. The hurricane hit the Gulf coast because there are hurricanes and they hit the coast of the southeast United States and that's just the way it works. It's not that God hates the South. It's not that a giant fetus is wrecking its revenge on abortion providers. It's not that New Orleans is full of savages who were too stupid to leave the city. It just happened. And there isn't any reason for it. There's nothing they could have done better or differently to avoid being hit by the hurricane, because the hurricane is not a sentient being that can be reasoned with. No one "deserved" this. But framing it as if people who didn't leave deserved to die serves two purposes. One, it lets the rest of us continue that comfortable lie that we would have handled things differently, if something like that happened to us. In the face of unfathomable tragedy, it's sad human nature to take comfort in feeling a little smug superiority. But, more importantly, two, it distracts us from questioning why, after the initial event no one could do anything about, is the water in New Orleans still rising? Why is there still chaos in the city? Why isn't there an enormous army of National Guard troops down there with helicopters and field kitchens and medics and the training to go into desolate urban areas and search for people? (In all fairness, the National Guard is responding to the crisis, but I want more of them.) But of course, the water is still rising because there are breeches in the levees that they haven't figured out how to repair. Why are there breeches in the levees? Because Bush cut the budget for shoring up the edges of Lake Pontchartrain and cut the budget for doing research into preparations for a category 4 or 5 hurricane hit on New Orleans. We could be talking about how wise it is to divert resources obviously sorely needed by the states to the "war on terror," but that's a hard and nuanced discussion. Heaven forbid we have a hard and nuanced discussion. It's much easier to just make sure everyone understands that the only people who are suffering are people who deserve it. Rest easy, America.