Sunday, September 04, 2005

Tragedy Katrina Brought

Non-existent relief in early days after Katrina and consequent tragedy will result in ragging debates within America. All over the world it will once again mutate perception about America. Common decency requires that one engages in this debate without disrespecting the people who have suffered or are still suffering and people who are working tirelessly to address the biblical proportion of the relief work. One feels calm and respectful for the courage of these relief workers, about their hard work and simply the noble tasks which they are doing. These are people in Media, Police, Military, Voluntary Organizations and simply neighbors helping each other. One feels one could do more than simply giving some money to participate in reducing this misery. But as the Democratic freshman House Representative Charlie Melancon said in the Radio address on Saturday September 3, 2005; we should not shirk away from asking tough questions here. The debates and blogs have a place to prepare a fertile ground for such effective questioning to take place and something good to come out.

It is hard to grasp the complexity of the whole impact and huge relief work which has started. If what Louisiana Republican Senator Vitter says is true, we are looking at 10,000 deaths due to the storm and subsequent flooding. Impact away from New Orleans is vast too. There are already confirmed deaths of around 150 outside Louisiana. Mississippi officials say the death toll will be larger. Mississippi as a state is having a huge impact on it’s economy. The death toll up to 300 to 400 is realistic in that state. Other areas will possibly increase that number by another 100 or more so. But it is the New Orleans where the maximum brunt in thousands is. Mayor of New Orleans says so too. The minimum number is surely around 1000; but more likely 2000 to 3000. All in all one is talking here potentially life loss more than 9/11; 3000+. One does not know whether it will be as high as 10,000 or so but a tragedy larger than 9/11 is the primary indication of the scope. President Bush says, the area approximately the size of Great Brian is affected; which is the geographical scope of this crisis. In terms of economic impact figures are $30 to $100 Billion. All in all this is an unprecedented calamity which any nation is likely to find hard to address. It could be only countries like India and China who could have resources to measure up to the challenges which are unfolding. One always expects flawless, quick and very smooth response from America. But looking at the enormity; it should be understandable the hiccups and chaotic manner of the relief work. Having said that, since there are so many things which have gone wrong, the so far conduct of the relief work raises fundamental questions about American State, Society, the prevailing sense of Morality and it’s politics. All these questions are unavoidable.

9/11 did not tear the American social fabric; did not create any feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’. America saw it as a national tragedy, came together as a nation and with a solid unity dealt that attack. Looking back, one sees why was it so and why was it that easy. It was effectively an attack by an identifiable enemy, albeit in an unusual form. Entire America was ‘us’ and the enemy outside the country was ‘them’. Next, the ground zero was already in effect ‘sanctified’ by the heroic sacrifices of NYFD fire fighters who without any after-thoughts started to climb the towers. Hence it was very easy for politicians to make rousing speeches on that ‘hallow’ background. It is not to take credit away from President Bush for his inspiring response then; but really it is those heroes (and heroes on another flight who avoided the impact on the capital) who made it possible. Again those heroes were not some anonymous behind the screen players; but identifiable individuals. Thirdly, there was no ‘direct’ warning of the looming disaster. Intelligence failure, sure it was; but it is different than an incoming hurricane followed by weather and main channels for a week. Finally, the impact was restricted to one area with no effect on the infrastructure in and around New York. For all these reasons, if at all anything, that tragedy strengthened the ‘fabric’ of American society.

But Katrin Flood Impact and Relief work is having the opposite outcome. First, the images. Again and again, it proves how devastating TV images can be. In this case unrelenting live coverage by Media has brought ‘the horror and hell’ in your living room. There cannot be any thinking American who would not have wondered how come this happens in America – needy and trapped people not getting basic humanitarian help for more than two days. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’. Them in this case is Mother Nature. There is no identifiable human enemy behind all this. Affected area is littered by the misery of people; there is no honor scattered around for a claim. (It will come there as all these tireless relief workers clear the mess.) It is hard to avoid thinking failures of the Government as misery continued for days and in some cases increased due to lawlessness. When America learns about possibly rape incidences, looting and gun fights instead of people helping each other in times of crisis; America is in disbelief. It is as if ‘devil’ in American has surfaced and making this havoc. Why do American society leave so many in poverty as result of which they do not have a car or ways and means to evacuate even when catastrophe is looming? How come our own elected Government plays with the life of people and becomes callous and criminally irresponsive? Is it the color of the skin of suffering people which mattered? Are we still not able to bury the ghosts of racism even after so many years? How come we are so ill equipped to handle seemingly endless stream of our own citizens as evacuees? Why do we get unfailing ‘spin’ always from our leaders; the behavior which is reliable to the point of deafness? Instead of inspiring vision and encouragement, why do we get myopic and totally unimaginative vision from our leaders? All these questions, chaos, misery and no answers is where American society has landed. When some sections of people do not believe in others, our State and our Society; one understands that the social fabric is ruptured. You aren’t Great Society and Great Nation when the social fabric is in tatters. That is the biggest challenge of Katrina aftermath.

President Bush’s governance has be no less controversial here. The most perplexing issue that will hound President Bush all his life, not just the remaining term, is why the delay occurred in reaching Military and National Guard in New Orleans. Granted that National Guards is the issue for Governors to be proactive at. Storm impacted New Orleans on Monday morning. On Tuesday, news started to come that the city is flooding. By Wednesday, flooding was complete and people started to congregate at Superdome. Whole Wednesday, the news about looming evacuation crisis was on TV. So the general expectation was, by Thursday the forces would be in the city. They did not reach for next 24 hours. Why was that delay? In these early crisis periods, the time scale is kind of logarithmic. First minutes are crucial, then next hours are important, then weeks and so on. So it is simply not the question of delay occurred by 24 hours only or only by a day. Those 24 hours were way too important. Many lives must have lost during that time and anarchy ruled. As the ultimate keeper of the American State, the president is directly responsible to minimize the duration of ‘loss of State control’ in all circumstances; especially on American Ground. President failed for those 24 hours or so surely. The writ of the president of United States of America was non-existent for a day within the borders of America. The question is what happened:
- Did Defense Secretary Rumsfeld refuse to give army? Or refused to give control?
- Was there turf war among Homeland Security Secretary Cheritan, Pentagon and other players?
- Was it a Command failure? That President asked for the dispatch and deployment of the forces, but the command chain below him did not listen, did not execute soon enough?
- Did Federal Government simply derelict in her duty in calling troops early?
- Don’t they have enough troop in America to take care of these emergencies because so many are in Iraq and so many are rotated?
- Did the Feds get the news of looming refugee crisis quick enough? (As Ted Koppel asked FEMA Director, don’t they watch TV?)
- Did the governor take enough efforts to mobilize National Guards? Wasn’t Washington proactive in providing National Guards? Who dropped the ball here?
- Finally, hard to believe part – was there no transportation and logistics immediately available?

Any one of these possibilities raise the fundamental questions about the ability of American might to project and use her power quickly enough in her own country. It is hard to believe that America does not have ready standing troops of few thousands with necessary logistics to send those troops within hours to any place in USA. They have done so on many occasions in the rest of world or at least that is the conception Pentagon wants everyone to believe in and outside USA. If Commander in Chief is not able to pull through such a deployment; it rattles the belief and dependency on American forces. Thirty, forty years down the line when notes and internal confidential documents of these cabinet meetings and other documents are made public; one will really know what happened. Meanwhile, it is President Bush who needs to explain as much as feasible and more important to act upon that. In absence of this information, there will be profound doubts in the minds of people about the ability of this State to bring the instruments of enforcement at short notice. Newt Gringrich set the tone when he asked how will America deal with a devastating nuclear or biological attack?

President Bush also came lacking in the other more public role of Leadership in terms vision and people’s mind share. His early speech was very mundane (NYT criticized it rightly). He needs to be ‘healer’ here. But overall his style is too ‘divisive’, too much with sharp edges; not at all conducive to induce unity among Americans in times of crisis. Why could he not muster inspiring passages from Bible? Why did his mooring of Morality in the mould of Christianity not help him to articulate some calming thoughts? The way American Politics work, that is the unwritten, probably more crucial, duty of an American President. We could see none of that. On the other hand one feels some how this President becomes a reason to bring forth the ‘worst’ out of American people.

The other question is how does America get enough money for security from both natural disasters and terrorism. The answer most probably lies in reversing the aggressive and ultra proactive policy of regime change followed in order to stop terrorism outside of USA. As the Iraq war shows, in the first place it might not work (Iraq with divided 3 parts is a more of a fertile ground for terrorism); it is way too expensive in terms of American lives and money and it simply takes out oxygen from the political establishment to deal with the real problems on hand. Basically, the current expensive foreign policy of this Administration in the name of War on Terrorism will have to go away to get more prepared at home for natural disasters as well as defense structures at home to deal with terror. It will be curious to see if the Administration indeed makes that turn by next year or not. Chances are the Administration may not make such essential changes. But at this darkest hour of America, changing and reevaluating those policies is necessary. If that does not happen, America will go down further deep in this mess with recurring after-thoughts and guilt of budget compromises for the necessary infrastructures within America. Katrina tragedy requires that the foreign policy and domestic agenda of this administration is reexamined and altered as needed. Can we talk about Social Security in this charged environment? More importantly does it make sense? How can America afford more Tax cuts when she needs more money to address natural calamities and preparedness? All these things need to go, and will go, on the back-burner. That is the calling of this hour.

Umesh Patil
San Jose, CA
September 04, 2005.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

After the Storm blog
EDITOR'S NOTE: This daily roundup of Web and blogosphere coverage of Hurricane Katrina appears on the Web Site of the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss.
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