Even the disasters and tragedies that at first unite us in grief or anger — Pearl Harbor, 9-11 — end up dividing us. New Orleans will be no exception.
Books are yet being written on how Kimmel and Short, the commanders at Pearl, were scapegoated. Had we not broken the Japanese code? Did not FDR know by decoded intercepts the night of Dec. 6 that Tokyo had terminated talks and this meant war? Why was Gen. Marshall horseback riding the morning of Dec. 7, as aides frantically searched for him to alert Pearl?
Despite the 9-11 commission report, questions remain about the warnings received and advance knowledge President Bush had or should have had about what was coming.
With the Katrina disaster, however, we are not going to have to wait months for the accusations and recriminations. They have already begun, and will poison our politics for years. Even as the hurricane was coming ashore, Robert Kennedy Jr. was attacking Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour for his role “in derailing the Kyoto Protocol and kiboshing President Bush’s iron-clad campaign promise to regulate CO2.”
Because of “Barbour and his cronies,” wrote Kennedy, “we are all learning what it’s like to reap the whirlwind of fossil fuel dependence. … Our destructive addiction has given us a catastrophic war in the Middle East and — now — Katrina is giving our nation a glimpse of the climate chaos we are bequeathing our children.”
Kennedy was seconded by Germany’s environmental minister, Jurgen Tritten, who mounted his hobby horse — the hurricane was the result of the global warming Bush has ignored — and rode, rode, rode.
Columnist James Glassman tore into these twin distortions of reality and exploitations of disaster. But the RFK-Tritten attack was ineffectual. No rational American is going to believe that, had Bush signed Kyoto, New Orleans would not be underwater. It is on the more serious matters that rancorous argument is about to begin, and deep divisions are about to be driven into our society.
First, it seems self-evident that those in the path of the storm who had the least suffered the most. Those who had no way out were left behind, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, perished. From TV pictures of the 20,000 crammed into the Superdome and the hundreds hauled off rooftops, most of them, it appears, were African-American.
Conversely, TV footage of looters happily at work — taking not just food and water, but jewelry, guns, electronics and booze — reveals them, too, to be disproportionately African-American.
As demands arise that the National Guard and Army shoot looters to end the anarchy, the race demagogues will go to work. For if that orgy of rioting, looting, shooting and racial assaults on Korean and white Americans that was the Los Angeles riot of ’92 can be excused by apologists as a justified reaction to the Simi Valley jury’s refusal to convict the cops who whaled on Rodney King, assuredly raucous voices will be raised in defense of the New Orleans looters.
But ultimately, the attacks will come around to a single target, President Bush, and they will run along these lines:
First, he was out of touch in Crawford, not alert to what was coming — and, indeed, photographed fooling with a guitar the day the storm hit. Second, despite the investment of scores of billions, the Gulf Coast, on his watch, was unprepared for a Category 4 hurricane.
Third, when the need arose for the Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard to save the poor of those states, and defend lives and property after the storm, 7,000 Guardsmen were not on the Gulf of Mexico, but in the Persian Gulf.
Bush’s priorities are about to be challenged, and Katrina will turn America’s eyes inward, even as the crisis on the Mexican border is turning America’s attention away from the Syrian border.
The antiwar movement has a new argument: What in Iraq is more important than Mississippi and Louisiana?
As the cost of the disaster mounts, the questions will tumble, one upon the other: Can we afford both Iraq and resurrecting New Orleans and the Gulf? Which comes first? As the Gulf poor have lost most, ought not taxes be raised on the rich to pay for both?
Finally and critically, there is the question of why the levees broke and New Orleans was inundated, lost for years if not forever. As of Monday, the city had been spared. The French Quarter was dry. Then came the deluge. And there are print and TV allegations that funds allocated to strengthen the levees were diverted or cut by the Bush administration.
Soon, we will be hearing and reading of recommendations by some officials that the levees be strengthened, and of decisions by other officials that the money be used on something else.
The scapegoating has begun. It will be deadly serious. The stakes are the highest. The ultimate objective will be to break the Bush presidency. Katrina and “Who Lost New Orleans?” will be as pivotal to Bush’s second term as 9-11 was to his first.