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Inspirational, Informative, and General Reading

A Week After Katrina - A Long-Term Perspective

by Anil Chawla

The true test of any individual or society or nation comes when it faces adversity. United States of America faced such a test on 29 August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina with wind speeds of more than 100 mph touched ground. Katrina has been called as "a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions for America". There can be no disputing the fact that Katrina has caused extreme destruction in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana (especially Greater New Orleans). Katrina had a strong impact on Florida. She also affected Texas, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and many other Eastern U.S. states.

Having said that, let us note that the percentage of population that has been affected is less than five or ten per cent of the population of USA. New Orleans, that has been the worst affected, had a population of less than half a million before the disaster struck (484,674 as per 2000 census). USA's population is around 296 million. So, the population of New Orleans is less than 0.2 per cent of the country's population. Given the fact that USA is a developed and rich country, it stands to reason that the country should have had no problems in facing up to an event that affected such a miniscule percentage of its population.

Compare this with the Tsunami disaster that struck a small poor country like Sri Lanka (along with India and some others) on 26 December 2004. Sri Lanka's population is about 20 million. About 40 per cent of the country's population was affected by Tsunami waves. The number of deaths was much higher in Sri Lanka than in case of the tragedy in South East USA. Yet, Sri Lanka faced the disaster with much more aplomb. If my memory serves me right, there were no rotting corpses in Sri Lanka a week after Tsunami waves struck. In Sri Lanka there was no looting; there were no rapes; army and police did not have to fire a single shot against civilians on rampage; and even though there was a severe shortage of resources, there were no allegations of discrimination based on either race or religion or caste.

Now compare it with the total anarchy that prevailed in New Orleans. A few glimpses:

* As I write it, the news has just come in that the people, holed up in the city's famous (now infamous) sports stadium called Superdome, have been evacuated. About 70,000 persons had taken shelter in this stadium. Many died in this shelter due to starvation, dehydration and also due to attacks by criminal gangs.

* The ambulance service in charge of taking the sick and injured from the Superdome suspended flights after a shot was reported fired at a military helicopter. Richard Zuschlag, chief of Acadian Ambulance, said it had become too dangerous for his pilots.

* Police shot and killed at least five people after gunmen opened fire on a group of contractors traveling across a bridge on their way to make repairs.

* Organized and well-armed gangs were roaming in the streets, looting empty houses and ransacking shops.

* There may be no better way to explain the desperation on the city's ravaged streets than this: In the past few days, two police officers took their lives with their own weapons and dozens have turned in their badges.

* On Tuesday, 6 September, corpses were still lying all around the place. Probably, the priority is to move the living before taking care of the dead.

* Voluntary, religious and charity organizations have been conspicuous by their absence. One reads that about USD 300 or 400 million has been raised by charity organizations including Red Cross but there are hardly any volunteers out in the field helping out.

* There are widespread accusations that African Americans (blacks, in politically incorrect language) are being discriminated against. African Americans formed 67 per cent of the population of New Orleans.

* Tsunami had come without prior warning, but there was a warning of at least two clear days for Katrina. On Sunday, 28 August New Orleans Mayor, Ray Nagin, had ordered mandatory evacuation of the city. All those who had cars fled. Motorways were jammed. George Bush declared state of emergency. But no one made any arrangements for evacuation of poor people (read blacks) who did not own cars. They just moved into shelters like the one in Superdome where they were abandoned to rot, without food, water, toilet facilities and police protection.

The picture that emerges from the above glimpses is one of sheer neglect and callous insensitivity of a country, which claims to be the world's richest and most powerful. There have been strong comments from various quarters about the attitude of President George W Bush and his team during this crisis. He was vacationing when the crisis occurred and he took it very lightly. It has also been said that he suffers from a compulsive-obsessive-disorder that forces him to focus exclusively on Iraq and the so-called war against terrorism even when there is a category-five hurricane knocking at his doors. These are strong words about a person who is surely, human and suffers from infirmities that all humans, and in particular politicians across the world, are susceptible to.

It is easy and a bit too tempting to join the chorus of Skin-Bush-Alive (not counting the innumerable unprintable slogans about Bush circulating on the net). While one cannot defend George W Bush, it is important to understand that the malaise is more deep-rooted and will not disappear if George Bush is hanged on the nearest electric pole.

Sitting in India, nobody I know can understand how a rape can occur in a sports stadium packed with 70,000 people. Women in India feel safe when there is a crowd and are afraid only when it is lonely. Temporary camps are routinely set up in India to house persons displaced due to either floods or riots or tsunami or some other calamity. Police protection in such camps is virtually non-existent. Yet, women have never felt unsafe in any such camp. There must be something drastically wrong in a society that cannot remain peaceful and orderly without an omnipresent policeman.

Americans like to talk about this or that poor country drifting into statelessness. The truth is that their own country has reached the stage of societylessness. Society, as an organic being, has ceased to exist in USA. New Orleans, with its population of less than half a million, is a small town. In any small town in India, everybody seems to know everyone else and while in normal times there may be petty rivalries and quarrels, in times of crisis, the whole town stands up together as one. This did not happen in New Orleans. The looting, ransacking, intimidation, rapes, and murders were the handiwork of citizens of New Orleans. The so-called normal law-abiding citizens had no spirit or willingness to rise up and face the destructive elements within their own brethren. Each one of them trusted the state to take care of these matters and abdicated their responsibility as a responsible member of the society. The fiasco at New Orleans would hopefully make Americans realize that there can be a society and a country without a formal state, but a state without a society has a precarious existence.

Every society needs leaders and traditionally persons heading the state have provided leadership to the society in times of crisis. Though, of course, there are many other leaders that spring up in difficult times. New Orleans, in particular and USA, in general, have suffered from the total absence of leadership. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has been fuming over what George W Bush did not do. He may well be right. But there are things that Ray Nagin has also failed to do. He failed to provide leadership to his people in this hour of crisis. I saw an aerial photograph of large number of inundated school buses lined up in a yard. Why were these not called up on the day before the hurricane struck to move people out of town? Was it not possible to make teams among people holed up in the Superdome to take up self-defense and policing? Was it not possible to contact, inspire and motivate voluntary agencies across USA to take up relief work? No American commentator has raised these questions. Probably because, all this sounds too strange in a country where people are held together by the order of law implemented by the state. In most other countries, social bonds and duties are stronger and more important than laws laid down by the state. In times of crisis and adversity, it is these social bonds and duties that help the society survive. In USA there is no society, it is just individuals who tolerate each other to the extent that the policeman in the street bids them to. When there is no policeman, some of these individuals jump at the throats (or groins) of some others, while everyone else just looks away.

United States of America must take a critical look at its social bonds and structures. For two centuries or so the values of America have been selfishness and self-centeredness. Religion, as a way of thinking and life, has been dying a slow death in the mainstream of American thought. There is no doubt that Christianity is today more potent force in American politics than it ever was in the past hundred years. Conservatives and evangelists, who exploit Christianity as a political weapon, have reduced Christianity to either a ritual of going to Church every Sunday or parroting all that is written in the Bible or a set of family values where one rises above one's own selfishness and spends quality time with one's children on every weekend. The classic Christian values of compassion, universal brotherhood, love and care, willingness to sacrifice one's pleasures for the other - are essential for the existence of any society. It is these values that seem to have vanished from United States of America.

An oriental value that could possibly be useful for America is respect for elders. Americans see old persons as painful but unavoidable baggage. In oriental societies, old and experienced provide moral guidance. In a way, at a micro level, aged persons provide leadership to the society in eastern countries. In the absence of such a leadership in America, might-is-right or bullyism or ruffianism holds sway, as it happened in the Superdome at New Orleans.

But, one cannot really blame the bullies of New Orleans. They were only doing what America has been doing for the past many decades on the international arena. Unfortunately for USA, the ethos of might-is-right when internalized among her own people leads to results, which are truly terrible.

Hurricane Katrina, in spite of its category five status, would have only been a small blip in the history of USA. But by exposing the collapse of society in USA and by demonstrating her incapability of handling adversity, the hurricane has created circumstances that will influence the progress of world history in the next few decades. USA has too many enemies across the world. While you and I sympathize with the unfortunate people of New Orleans, the enemies of USA are rubbing their hands with glee at having seen a big chink in the armor. They know that a nation without a society cannot face adversity and a country that cannot face adversity is doomed, sooner or later. Many of these enemies of USA predict that USA will meet the same fate as USSR, probably even worse than that. Time alone will prove them either right or wrong.

If the people of USA look at Katrina as a blessing in disguise and see her as an opportunity for them to understand their weaknesses as a society and rebuild the damaged social structure of their country, 29 August 2005 would be remembered as the golden turning point in the history of USA. On the other hand, well, I dread to even imagine that. Please join me in wishing the best to America and her people!

More Inspirational/Informative Articles

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer (and now a lawyer too) by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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