Our Third World

Thursday, September 8th, 2005

And so the real enemy showed itself and we lost the Big Easy.

Before we sort out the small blames — the funding cuts to FEMA, the cronyism and amateurism that silently ravaged our national disaster response preparedness under the Bush administration, the bleeding of the economy and diversion of resources caused by the war in Iraq — we owe it to the thousands of dead, the million displaced, the entire devastated Gulf Coast that has become Atlantis, to rethink, first, who we are as a country.

We tolerate poverty and flout environmentalism, and therefore the poorest of the poor were left to flounder and drown in a “toxic gumbo” that may have been created by a hell spawn of global warming.

While our president presides over the bloated windfall (for a few) known as the war on terror — saving us from nothing — and purports to be spreading freedom and democracy across the planet, America’s own Third World raises up its hand in desperation. With Katrina poised offshore, we evacuated the First World, primarily in SUVs (something over half of all vehicles owned in America are SUVs), and left the rest of the population to die like Third Worlders everywhere.

“The poverty in Louisiana is stunning,” Janice McAlpine, a public-interest lawyer in Baton Rouge, told me. “It’s as close to a Third World country as you can get. We don’t have a system in place to assist poor people in times of crisis” — which blow in far more often than Category 5 hurricanes. “Many of the people who are suffering now,” she noted, “have suffered through a lot of things.”

That’s just the way it is. But Katrina laid this suffering bare, spread the shocking reality of it across the front pages of the world’s press.

“We have been abandoned by our own country,” Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish, told Tim Russert. “Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as one of the worst storms ever to hit an American coast, but the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history. . . . Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area, and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now.”

Nick Cater, writing in London’s The Guardian about the offers of aid — food, medicine, relief workers — pouring into the United States from all over the world, including such impoverished countries as Afghanistan, cautioned: “If we do give for Katrina, let’s react as America would to any developing country which fails to prepare for disaster and allows its people to die, such as Zimbabwe or North Korea: Set conditions for aid use, channel it away from the government to trusted charities, and insist on intensive scrutiny of the results.”

So much for the arrogance of the world’s only superpower, which gave way when the levees of New Orleans broke. Suddenly effective leadership requires more than swagger.

“At a fundamental level, I’d argue, our current leaders just aren’t serious about some of the essential functions of government,” Paul Krugman wrote recently in the New York Times. “They like waging war, but they don’t like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures. And they never, ever ask for shared sacrifice.”

This is a stunning indictment. In George Bush, the country has precisely the wrong leader to deal with its real needs. His administration’s record of shame — from the war in Iraq to the flouting of the Kyoto Accords to its mean-spirited aid offer last winter to tsunami victims — is evidence of an obsolete set of values inadequate to meet the enormous challenges of the 21st century. We need a president who is not “soft on CO2 emissions.” We need a president who can lead us out of the fossil fuel era.

Jeremy Rifkin, writing in Chosun Ilbo (Seoul), says the storm will be seen as a “tipping point of the fossil fuel era — the moment when the American public began to discard the comfortable myth that the end of the oil era and the cataclysmic effects of global warming lie far in the distant future.”

Hurricane Katrina, not 9/11, may turn out to be the defining crisis of the Bush administration: a crisis badly fumbled at every level, maybe because there’s no country to invade afterward.

We have met the enemy, as Walt Kelly’s Pogo said in 1970, on the occasion of the first Earth Day, and he is us. We have no precedent for dealing with this enemy, but 35 years later, the urgency to do so is upon us.