The government response to Katrina, aside from being riddled with error and incompetence, has been downright cruel — forcing people to leave their pets and property behind, keeping charity out of the city, turning away private volunteers and assistance, treating people who might only be scavenging for abandoned and rotting food like dangerous criminals, disrupting private transportation and burdening flights out of the city with ludicrous post-9/11 security measures, expropriating private property, separating families and forcefully corralling human beings onto buses and into buildings without adequate fresh air, water or plumbing. Reading the news reports, we see the government reacting with a mixture of ineptitude and martial law, appearing to do everything it can to prevent civilization from surviving and rebounding after the flood.
Last week, Governor Kathleen Blanco described the National Guard troops arriving "fresh back from Iraq" to impose order in the Gulf States as "locked and loaded" and ready to "shoot to kill."
Military personnel, recently stationed in Iraq, have described what they see on the ground in New Orleans. A Washington Post article quotes one troop saying, "It’s just so much like Iraq, it’s not funny. . . except for all the water, and they speak English." Another called the situation "like Baghdad on a bad day."
Tens of thousands of National Guard troops and active-duty personnel are or will soon be deployed throughout the Gulf Coast. "But," according to the Washington Post, "the massive military effort remains severely disjointed and hampered by a lack of basic communication between units, Army officers here say. Ground commanders for New Orleans have been functioning without the ability to track the location of some units reporting to them — something unheard of in Iraq, the officers say."
The article continues,
"Much work remains for U.S. soldiers in this gutted no man’s land, where looting, drive-by shootings and other crime are rampant. Much as in Iraqi cities, the troops are moving by the hundreds into makeshift bases in schools and other public buildings, setting up checkpoints and 24-hour patrols. The guardsmen have been authorized to seize weapons and detain people.
"We’re having some pretty intense gun battles breaking out around the city,’ said Capt. Jeff Winn of the New Orleans police SWAT team. u2018Armed gangs of from eight to 15 young men are riding around in pickup trucks, looting and raping,’ he said. Residents fearful of looters often shout to passing Humvees to alert the soldiers to crimes in progress.
"Hey, stop!’ a man wearing a baseball cap yelled to an Arkansas Guard team Sunday afternoon as it drove through the city’s Metairie district in Jefferson Parish. u2018Those people don’t live here!’ he said, pointing to a white sports car parked outside a large brick home.
"Atkinson sped over to the car, hopped out and pointed at it with his M-4 rifle. He and Capt. Derald Neugebauer, 36, of Vilonia, Ark., questioned the two men about looting — but because they had no radio communication with the New Orleans police, they had to flag down a passing patrol car to hand over the two men."
So we see here a bumbling, draconian military reaction to an enormous government failure. Yet all too many left-liberals seem to think the problem is simply Republican mismanagement and not enough government spending. I have heard very few on the left denounce the imposition of martial law and the treatment of human beings in the area as livestock or worse. They complain that the federal government has been all tied up in Iraq and so it has neglected New Orleans, but they have not been as quick to note that perhaps the federal government’s efforts to bring relief and order to the flooded American coast, however well funded, will prove as problematic and counterproductive as its attempts to bring "freedom" to the Middle East. Do they really think that the U.S. government’s military occupiers are suited for disaster relief?
What might be worse than the liberal critique is the conservative reaction to it. Americans on the left are at least upset and unhappy with the system, as they should be. Liberal news outlets have not appeared as critical of the establishment in some time. The rightwing, in contrast, upholds Bush’s handling of the situation, saying he’s doing everything as well as he can, and that the only problems are the local authorities and the recalcitrant population unwilling to follow orders and evacuate. The federal government doesn’t owe the indigents anything, so say the most brazen conservative pundits, borrowing rhetorically from libertarian opposition to welfare statism, but doing so for the perverse purpose of vindicating the federal response and upholding the big-government Bush regime. Sure, it is wrong and wrongheaded for the feds to tax Americans for disaster relief. But the feds are hardly blameless for what has happened. Sure, to blame Bush alone for the catastrophe is out of line and unproductive. But to portray Bush as the victim is an obscenity.
The rightwing sentiment seems to hold that the government is correct in imposing martial law, and that it should shoot all looters and troublemakers on sight and implement order with an iron fist where the flood has swept it away. Clearly, most conservatives have little opposition to government involvement in addressing the disaster per se. If anything, their qualm seems to be the idea of their tax dollars going to welfare recipients rather than on hiring more National Guard troops to tame the disorderly hordes in Iraq and New Orleans, and, if that fails, to shoot to kill. Nor does the right seem any more likely than the left to object in principle to coercively detaining American citizens in a convention center or sports arena. Mandatory evacuations and detentions — the very cause of much of the looting and violence — receive conservative approval.
In contemplating the situation here in America, a U.S. officer in Iraq said, “If anything I’m kind of embarrassed. We’re supposed to be telling the Iraqis how to act and this is what’s happening at home?” Whereas at first we might have expected the conservatives to realize that the same federal authorities who have bungled so much in New Orleans are probably not apt to bring freedom to Iraq, instead they have only inflated their endorsement of the right and power of the U.S. government to suspend civil liberties for the sake of the common good. In New Orleans, the conservatives have had their chance to see what federal freedom really means, and thus what it likely means when imposed on the rest of the world. And the rightwing sentiment is to bring it on.
Crises have led to America’s largest expansions in government power. Every major war, along with the Great Depression, account for the vast majority of current government powers and major agencies. Despite their occasional (and constantly diminishing) anti-government rhetoric, conservatives are especially prone during times of crisis to call upon the government to do something drastic. After 9/11, there were calls to nuke parts of the Middle East, infiltrate every Mosque in America, and intern Americans of Arab descent. At this moment, the conservatives, now on the defensive as their president is being accused of not doing enough to address a disaster, revert back to their signature rhetorical strategy of saying that the government can’t fix every problem. But they still defend the federal government’s most egregious measures in response to Katrina, and they will likely support any federal aid that Bush provides. Some of them continue to call for price controls in response to the rising price of gas.
If America falls victim to another terrorist attack, as bad as or worse than 9/11 and as devastating as or more so than the Katrina aftermath, can we expect the right to keep its cool? Or will it be time for martial law throughout America, forced evacuations everywhere, crackdowns on dissent and a shoot-to-kill policy for all people unwilling to follow federal orders and be herded around like sheep? On the other hand, can we expect the left to keep its cool? Will it cave in to any and all suspensions of liberty so long as the government is "doing something — anything" to create order out of chaos?
We have come to the point in America when the real domestic issue has frighteningly become not one of whether government should grow a little or shrink a little in one area or another: although it might not yet be out in the open, the issue before us is the wholesale abolition of civil liberty and whether such totalitarianism is ever justified, even in times of crisis.
The conservatives and "liberals" who say yes, who endorse martial law as sometimes necessary and proper and massive state violence as the cure to calamity, natural or manmade, are on the wrong side of the most important domestic issue of the day.
America is indeed at a crossroads. We do not yet know whether this disaster will lead to a revival in collectivist thinking or a new widespread disillusionment with the state. Somewhat ironically, our chances of surviving as a nation with any freedoms intact now rely on converting much of the left to our suspicion of government power at home as well as abroad. For the moment, the partisan elements on the right appear far too preoccupied with covering up the federal crimes in New Orleans and Iraq and calling for new ones to be terribly bothered by the quaint notion of individual liberty.
Our only hope might be that enough liberals and mainstream Americans finally realize that the problem is not small government, or Republican government, but government. This is sort of what happened in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, when the left followed its anti-establishment impulses and shook off its managerial pretensions just long enough to discover that the whole system was rotten. America had several years of glorious skepticism and cynicism of centralized power. Then the Republicans brought back faith in the federal state in the form of Ronald Reagan. David Brooks worries that we might now be entering into another 1970s, but I would view a new universal discontent with the state as the only possible silver lining of the flood’s dark cloud.
The government’s handling of New Orleans could cause people either to demand a return to normalcy or to be more than ever open to dictatorship at home. To make the best of the horrible situation, we must explain to everyone who will listen that 9/11, Iraq and New Orleans are government disasters. We must expose how they have been so far followed by government failures. We must demonstrate that even something like city planning can be done — and done much better — in the voluntary sector, without government. And we must not falter in our defense of civilization and our opposition to its destructor, the state.