Legacy of Neglect

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The
calamity was enormous, the toll in lives and ruin like nothing the
country knew. Yet the ultimate disaster was in the staggering negligence
of the government and its oblivious leader. Despite years of warnings
and then the stark sight of suffering, help was disgracefully slow,
too late for so many. “People must realize now,” one witness wrote
in her diary, “how rotten the structure has become.” Long afterward,
historians would think it a breaking point in trust, the moment
when the future began.

No,
not the great New Orleans flood of 2005. The great Russian drought
and famine of 1891. Not George W. Bush. But a similarly fey Nicholas
II. Not a breaking point in America perhaps, though there are intriguing
parallels.

As
most of the world knows, the grim search for the dead has now begun
in New Orleans, and among the casualties already is much of the
credibility of the Bush Administration. From startlingly bold coverage,
the scenes of tragedy in picture and print are indelible: Frail
old ladies slumped rag-doll dead across their wheelchairs. Lifeless
babies in someone’s helpless arms. Families on rooftops waving frantically
and in vain. A hospital patient who could not be rescued amid the
rising water and was euthanized by a desperate nurse – “We’re going
to help him to heaven,” she said to the sobbing young doctor who
later told the story. Not least, the barely describable horror of
thousands trapped and left in the Superdome, the enveloping squalor
symbolic of the building’s own squalid history as another of America
‘s coliseum monuments to public plunder for private greed.

Then,
of course, there were those other scenes: As sodden, long-neglected
levees crumbled and a great city sank beneath the tide, President
Bush flew off heedlessly to the West Coast to celebrate his triumphs
of national security. As Americans begged to be taken from catastrophe,
Vice-President Dick Cheney continued taking his vacation in Wyoming. As bloated corpses went floating on the flood, Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice went shopping Fifth Avenue for a small fortune
in shoes. Asked later her thoughts on the victims from her kindred
South, the Secretary offered with her usual authority, “The Lord
Jesus Christ is going to come on time. If we just wait.”

Like
an old French graveyard upturned by the torrent, the history of
the debacle near and far has come bobbing inescapably to the surface.
There were chillingly graphic warnings for decades, of course, from
the files of federal, state and local governments to the pages of
National Geographic. Developers came to eat away the fragile shield
of shoreline, but no funding came to shore up what everyone knew
to be the last line of defense at the levees.

It
took five to six days for us to watch much of New Orleans die, the
cries go silent, the rooftop begging vanish. But the real killing
of the city took a quarter century and more. The Corps of Engineers
budgets slashed and states starved by Washington’s tax cuts for
the wealthy, endless enriching of special interests, gathering orthodoxy
of greed and abandonment of the common good – all grotesquely garbed
as conservatism or fiscal responsibility.

It
hardly began with George W. Bush and the Republicans. The oligarchy
that left New Orleans to its fate for so many years of borrowed
time was thoroughly bipartisan. The disaster could never have happened
without the Democrats, from Congress after Congress to the spectacle
of Bill Clinton last week adding his clubbish alibi for the inexcusable
failure of a government to read its own files.

Nor
are we surprised to see racism lurking naked in policy and practice,
or the regrettable atavism of the administration’s primitive theology
and its energy lobby accommodations that stoutly denied the global
warming that may well have spawned Katrina. But no freedom from
prejudice or ignorance now would have saved New Orleans from the
criminal negligence of those decades that left a grindingly poor
population at the mercy of decrepit dikes.

Of
course, the war on Iraq and those who perpetrated it must bear the
blame for the atrocity in New Orleans. Of course national guardsmen
were in Mesopotamia, not Mississippi where they belong. Of course
helicopters were running gauntlets in a lost war, not rescuing our
own lost souls. But the war that presents so ready and simple a
target is only part of the larger disaster, and the eventual going
of Mr. Bush only part of coming to terms with the far wider, longer
misrule.

Even
then, hundreds, perhaps thousands, might still have been saved.
A general of the Northern Command tells the BBC his relief force
was in place over the precious final days, and was only awaiting
presidential orders. The USS Bataan, it turns out, was offshore
all along with vital help never mounted in time.

But
nothing could save New Orleans from the dithering incompetent crony
bureaucrats and insensate politicians who together have been the
inevitable, necessary accompaniment of the oligarchy. Thus the cruel
joke of FEMA Director Michael Brown, the former horse association
impresario entrusted with the lives of tens of thousands, easily
matched by Republican Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, the
ex-wrestling coach as statesman, who helpfully suggested that much
of New Orleans should be “bulldozed.”

All
this, we should note, in a New Orleans already one of the poorest
of America ‘s cities, a redolent casualty of the system long before
Katrina. Where half the households make less than $28,000 a year,
schools are a disgrace, the murder rate among the highest in the
country, and a police force with more than 50 officers recently
convicted of crimes. Into the cesspool of state politics will now
pour at least $10-billion in federal aid with the same able bureaucrats
and politicians overseeing it, adding appreciably to the “looting”
of New Orleans.

It
all gives new meaning to Homeland Security. Katrina has shown us
unmistakably that there are two homelands, two distinct versions
of Security in 2005 America. As New Orleans symbolizes so vividly,
the country has its high ground and low, its rescued and expendable.
In health care, education, jobs and a dozen other ways, in the far-reaching
meaning and impact of the war on Iraq, one homeland will be secure,
the other left to face the century’s floodtides alone.

The
plundering and heedlessness will go on as long as the system endures.
Even now the blame is shifting to state and local officials. In
the end, millions will believe, as millions already do, that the
poor, thus benighted, city committed suicide – and, in sentiment
suitably muted, good riddance.

I’ve
worked with presidents Johnson and Nixon – tough nuts but capable
of changing their minds. Those in power in Washington now speak
directly to God; I have no hope that Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney are
going to undergo some spontaneous conversion to a different way
of thinking post-Katrina. What we can hope is that both Republicans
and Democrats – in the Congress and those contemplating running
in 2008 – sense the pressure for a major reversal of priorities,
for troops to be brought home and resources reapportioned to true
homeland security. And this pressure may just force the administration’s
fiercely grudging hand at least to begin the process. A slim hope.

And
what of charming old New Orleans and environs, portal to a fourth
of the nation’s trade, refinery of every tenth tank of gas, that
and more.  Perhaps foolishly rebuilt and wanly defended as
the funds inevitably dwindle.   Perhaps turned into a Cajun
Venice in a country where tourism is always a last resort.  

In
any case, it will be a busy autumn.  Supreme Court confirmations. 
The Plame scandal indictments.  By Thanksgiving, between shots
of feasting soldiers in Baghdad and turkey at the Crawford Ranch,
the media should be showing smiling faces at the long-term shelters.

But
who knows? Somewhere, as in the tortured Russia of 1891 there may
be a diarist recording, “People must realize now…”  Perhaps
somewhere in the suffering and stench, the seeming immunity of the
misbegotten powerful, there really has been a breaking point, however
difficult to see or feel. Perhaps another future has begun for America,
after all.

September
8, 2005

Roger
Morris [send him mail], an
award-winning historian and investigative journalist who served
on the National Security Council Staff under Presidents Johnson
and Nixon, has just completed Shadows of the Eagle, a history
of American policy and covert interventions in the Middle East and
South Asia, to be published early next year by Alfred Knopf. He
serves as a Senior Fellow of the Green
Institute
, where this column appears originally, along with
his previous and ongoing work on American politics, on the Institute’s
world affairs web site
.

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