Here, I’m afraid, is the hard truth, and it is not pretty.
We did not immediately go in to save the Katrina victims because the government was caught between a military action and a disaster relief action.
My father spent much of his life in disaster relief for the Red Cross, and I know whereof I speak.
A relief effort is essentially the establishing of order in a situation of fear and chaos. People are desperate; they will fight for food for their children, their parents, themselves. They do not line up in orderly fashion and say, “Oh, yes, we will happily go two more days without food, water, clean clothes, toilet paper, tampons, medicine, and the chance to contact our relatives, while others are served first.” They will not wait in line to find out about lost children; they will not be orderly when their infant is sick. They will be wild, chaotic, and, sometimes, even dangerous.
Once they believe that their needs will be met, their better impulses take over and the situation settles down. But until that time, a calming presence and voice of reason is needed to hold them at bay.
The problem with Katrina is that we could not immediately establish the feeding stations, clothing depots, medical facilities, and communications centers that would have calmed the people and given them hope. We needed to establish order so we could set up the temporary infrastructure. And that meant holding back the chaos and desperation until that infrastructure was in place.
Here is the rub. Establishing order might have meant using force, and we dared not use force on our own people.
It only requires a modicum of imagination to envision what life was like in the Superdome and Convention Center. Imagine 90 degrees, no toilets, no ability to or willingness to move from the small space you’ve carved for yourself. Imagine night falling with no light, and people both desperate and deranged wandering in the darkened building, unable to be seen, unable to be controlled, stealing, raping, even killing. Imagine the crying and moaning, the people losing control — of their emotions, their bowels, their minds.
Who among us has not gotten caught in a crowd too dense for comfort and sensing a constriction in the chest that borders on panic, and found ourselves pushing as quickly as possible through the throng to an edge where we could breathe with comfort? Multiply that by a hundred, a thousand. Put it in a building reeking of the stench of human bodies and excrement and death. Put it in 90 degree heat. Put it in the absolute dark.
This was but one of a hundred thousand situations the relief people faced. Add in ghouls with rifles wandering the streets and sniping from rooftops, frantic people floating on air mattresses, people deranged with grief grabbing at you as you go by, willing to do anything in their power to get whatever relief you have, and a faint hint of the horrific picture begins to emerge.
To establish order, the government would have needed to turn on its own people to subdue them. This, it could not do. For whatever reason, we are not a “rubber bullet” society such as the British, who have a policy and method of dealing with crowd actions through the use of what is, in most circumstances, non-lethal force. We do not have this. We have guns and tear gas and pepper spray. Once you apply such force, you increase panic and rage.
And we did not have numbers. The New Orleans police force was too small, without communications, and at least partially corrupt. Our soldiers were unavailable because they are deployed in an equally as thankless task in Iraq. All we had were relief workers desperate to help, private citizens desperate to help, and a government immobilized by the fear that it would have to turn on its own citizens, and that the images, quite simply, would have been of uniformed men shooting or otherwise subduing black people.
Don’t for a minute think that we couldn’t have been in there almost instantly, offering aid and comfort. Don’t for a minute think that we couldn’t have been offering relief, saving the dying, evacuating the hospitals. And stories of individual heroism where just such acts were performed will surely begin to come out.
But on a policy level, we were immobilized by fear — fear of the use of force and fear of public perception.
We dropped into Iraq and began setting up relief efforts almost instantly. But it was because we could establish a modicum of order at the point of a gun. That it has not worked is a simple result of the fact that we are the ones who created the living hell from which our good soldiers are trying to extract these people.
But in New Orleans, we were not the enemy. Those people were us; it was our country, our people. The enemy was fear and panic, and that enemy could have been vanquished by the presence and voice of hope.
But we did not offer it. While our rescue workers waited to go in, our goverment tried to square the corners of a shapeless crisis and deal with it in terms of structural solutions. They had to game it out, plan it out, prepare for contingencies and exigencies. If it had been a house on fire, they would have had to wait for the architect to deliver floor plans before trying to put it out.
There is no other way to put it: this was a failure of imagination. We could not imagine a solution so we did not move forward.
I leave you with this: for what does the military give the Medal of Honor? For uncommon valor in the face of overwhelming odds.
Our nation did not earn a medal of honor in this disaster. It acted out of fear rather than courage, and in so doing it failed to do the single thing that would have defused the crisis: It failed to give its people hope.
We had many ordinary citizens who would willingly have risked their lives to save the lives of others. The Red Cross and Salvation Army, too, would have done what was necessary. But our government was too cowardly to let them. And the one voice, the one presence, that would have calmed the people and given them hope, was decidedly absent: AWOL in a time of need.