New Orleans: the sadness and the fury

No pretence is possible anymore. A dystopian future is being broadcast live on satellite TV. The scenes are those seen so many times in apocalypse films, but not as clean. The screen blocks out the smell of shit, the stench of the dead, the odour of pores clogged by fear in the sweltering heat, the acrid smoke from gunshots and fires. The utter destruction.

"For days they have been without adequate electricity, sanitation, or food supplies waiting to be taken from what many describe as a scene from hell. All who have been inside the Superdome speak of the pervading stench of human waste. Amid the deteriorating conditions at both refuges, horrific stories are emerging. At the Superdome there were two reports of rape, one involving a child, while police at the convention centre said there had been similar reported incidents. Others described what it was like to live among the dead. "We got dead bodies sitting next to us for days. I feel like I am going to die. People are going to kill you for water."

Aid starts arriving today, six days after the hurricane. "The BBC's Matt Frei, in New Orleans, says conditions in the convention centre, where up to 20,000 people are stranded, are the most wretched he has seen anywhere, including crises in the Third World."

This is happening in the USA today.

The superpower of the world, the armed defensor of those denied democracy across the oil and gas rich regions of the world, has not been able to respond adequately to the tragedy unfolding in its own home.

America's gun culture, its love of war, its veneration of violence crush its compassion, despite the many Americans that uphold caring and human rights. New Orleans morphs from "natural disaster" to "war zone".

"They have M-16s and are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will," Kathleen Blanco (Governor of Louisiana) said".

The press announcements that come from most American politicians place priority on stamping out looting rather than on evacuating those still stranded. "Order has to be restored" says a soldier in full combat gear on TV. Homeland security does not mean safety for all its people.

"We hear: "when the National Guard is beaten back, when shots are fired at rescuers, when a mob mentality takes over, when desperation sets in." Yet in the firestorm this becomes something else: the potential for a desire for the End that gradually overwhelms the desire to survive, a desire for the eschatological climax, murder, for the catastrophe to find its final arc in mass self-destruction: a spiral of total societal suicide in the throes of control. And here I speak not only of the "looters," but all the fantasies of the military & the police. And at the same time - "looters" trade goods on neutral ground - guns, cigarettes and liquor are taken, leaving food behind - all the vestiges of pleasure and capital, the archetypal comforts of the social, are resurrected in the chaos, to no end, for no purpose. People become ghosts."

According to a reporter speaking on BBC World earlier today, most looters were taking bare necessities.

Others were acting out some Far West fantasy turned nightmarishly true:

"A young Briton trapped with his fiancée in the stadium telephoned his father yesterday and pleaded to be rescued, saying that they were in "dreadful danger". (He) described... how the stadium, a makeshift home to about 30,000 evacuees from the hurricane, including a group of about 30 Britons, was being run by local mafia. He said that his American fiancée had been threatened with rape."

In the aftermath of the hurricane and flooding, for the first five days there is little or no water, food, medicines, but there are plenty of TV crews. Reality is now truly the show.

Some footage shows soldiers throw food from choppers, as if feeding animals. The people the cameras keep showing are mainly black. But what unites them all is that they are poor.

Watch the words, the dispossessed become known as refugees. As if to distance perception to another geographical location. Re-focus those black faces according to past news reports. Like some disaster in Africa. Yet they shout for help in American. They are prisoners of their poverty.

If diseases start to run rampant, will New Orleans become the real-life adaptation of John Carpenter's Escape from New York/L.A?

There are some that say:

"The poorest 20% (you can argue with the number -- 10%? 18%? no one knows) of the city was left behind to drown. This was the plan. Forget the sanctimonious bullshit about the bullheaded people who wouldn't leave. The evacuation plan was strictly laissez-faire. It depended on privately owned vehicles, and on having ready cash to fund an evacuation. The planners knew full well that the poor, who in new orleans are overwhelmingly black, wouldn't be able to get out. The resources -- meaning, the political will -- weren't there to get them out."

In this age, does the cult of pure profit reigns supreme over the welfare of people?

"What those who are afraid of civil society breaking down don't realize is that civil society has already broken down! This is not a civil society we live in, but a profiteering, every-man-for-himself, oligarchy. The democratic process is broken if not rigged; the largest-ever redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich occurred over the last six years under the guise of economic stimulus; fear and disinformation were used to put the poorest of Americans onto a battlefield under false pretenses; those who seek to engage the current administration in meaningful dialogue are terminated."

This is no natural disaster. And yet, no war is being declared on climate change, on poverty, on war.

No fear, the Jerry Lewis Telethon is about to start.

September 03, 2005 | 04:19 PM