Circles of Hell

Thursday, September 15th, 2005

As the layers of hell reveal themselves in the shocking details that continue to emerge from New Orleans, it becomes increasingly clear that natural disaster constitutes only the outer circle.

“As we approached the bridge, armed sheriffs formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads. This sent the crowd fleeing in various directions.”

This was the standoff at the Greater New Orleans Bridge across the Mississippi on day four, when a desperate, starving crowd that had swelled to about 800 people — mostly African-Americans — tried to get to buses they believed were waiting for them on the other side. They were stopped by police from suburban Gretna and two other municipalities, according to the horrifying account written by Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, two paramedics from San Francisco who had been in New Orleans for a convention and, like many other visitors to the city, rode out the storm in a French Quarter hotel.

“As the crowd scattered and dissipated,” they wrote, “a few of us inched forward and managed to engage some of the sheriffs in conversation. We told them of our conversation with the police commander and the commander’s assurances. The sheriffs informed us that there were no buses waiting. The commander had lied to us to get us to move.

“We questioned why we couldn’t cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the six-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans, and there would be no Superdomes in their city. These were code words for: If you are poor and black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River, and you are not getting out of New Orleans.”

The squalid innermost circles of hell, which thousands of American citizens may still be trapped in, are distinctly manmade.

Something far more sinister than incompetence has been at work in post-Katrina New Orleans. While there was plenty of that — “racism and incompetence seemed to merge to create a sluggish response,” Christian Parenti wrote in The Nation — the fumbling cluelessness of FEMA under George Bush is a minor aspect of the vision of America, armed and gated, he and his cohorts have bestowed on us.

In this virulent, militarized vision, disaster relief is an afterthought. What this administration does enthusiastically is wage war, or at least take potshots at fear. Thus the commander of the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force told Army Times, as quoted by Rebecca Solnit in Harper’s, “This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.”

If it’s a combat operation, you need an enemy — and the poor and destitute of New Orleans got conscripted into this role. As Solnit pointed out, “The Convention Center and the Superdome became open prisons.” The evacuees sequestered in these hellholes were not allowed to leave. The National Guardsmen there, like other law enforcement officials in the stricken city, seemed to be employed less in disaster relief than “enemy” containment.

The nation has suddenly learned what compassionate conservatism looks really like: “Inside there were National Guard running around, there was feces, people had urinated, soiled the carpet. There were dead bodies. The smell will never leave me.”

So Duke University student Hans Buder told Durham’s Herald-Sun about his visit to the New Orleans Convention Center a few days after Katrina hit. He and two classmates had swiped an Associated Press ID from a Baton Rouge TV station, copied it at Kinko’s and thus got through roadblocks to make a freelance run into New Orleans. They evacuated people in their two-wheel drive Hyundai before any FEMA buses had arrived.

This is disaster relief under George Bush’s leadership — kids in Hyundais, doing an end run around authority.

It’s also mercenaries. Why should that be a surprise? Under Bush, Americans are encouraged to be afraid. So private military companies such as Blackwater, which contract their services to the U.S. government in Iraq and Afghanistan, now have their men roaming the streets of New Orleans wielding M-16s, presumably protecting private property from the desperate people who are not allowed to leave.

This paradoxical, manmade hell — this compounding of disaster with fear and racism — needn’t have happened and shames us deeply. It’s the result of a massive and predictable failure of leadership stemming from a failure of vision. Our government, instead of rallying the nation, encouraged its descent into barbarism.