Hurry Up and Blame the Victims!

If you, like me, were slowly knitting your way through your first cardigan sweater and watching the coverage of the aftermath of Katrina, you might have been struck by how, at about eight o’clock the coverage shifted from the massive devastation and death along the Gulf Coast, the unbearable stories of death and the unbelievable stories of survival, to grilling public officials about “widespread” looting.

It was like someone flipped a switch and now the story was going to be about looters, not about victims, when of course, those are the same people. People who lost everything in the hurricane and the flood in New Orleans are the ones looting. There aren’t any outside bands of bad guys coming in to swarm down on Walmart and steal diapers and dry shoes and dry clothes and food. Those are people whose whole worlds are destroyed.

Why are we vilifying them?

Chris Wage at My Quiet Life has been on this from the beginning, pointing out how the media was already framing people staying in the city as them “opting” to remain, when really, if you don’t have a car or extra money or relatives who live elsewhere, what options do you have? Boing Boing spells it out even more clearly, talking about how the evacuation plan for the city seemed to be contingent on everyone being able to fund their own evacuations.

The people I saw on MSNBC and FoxNews looting were black. Partially, as Boing Boing points out, this is because most of the poor people in New Orleans are black. Partially, as Atrios points out, it’s because, according to the media (the AP in this case), black people “loot” and white people “find.”

But I think it has a great deal to do with the fact that there are a lot of bodies down there, floating around in the streets, crushed under buildings, or suffocating as you read this in their attics.

There is no sense to be made of it. The hurricane hit the Gulf coast because there are hurricanes and they hit the coast of the southeast United States and that’s just the way it works. It’s not that God hates the South. It’s not that a giant fetus is wrecking its revenge on abortion providers. It’s not that New Orleans is full of savages who were too stupid to leave the city.

It just happened. And there isn’t any reason for it. There’s nothing they could have done better or differently to avoid being hit by the hurricane, because the hurricane is not a sentient being that can be reasoned with. No one “deserved” this.

But framing it as if people who didn’t leave deserved to die serves two purposes. One, it lets the rest of us continue that comfortable lie that we would have handled things differently, if something like that happened to us. In the face of unfathomable tragedy, it’s sad human nature to take comfort in feeling a little smug superiority.

But, more importantly, two, it distracts us from questioning why, after the initial event no one could do anything about, is the water in New Orleans still rising? Why is there still chaos in the city? Why isn’t there an enormous army of National Guard troops down there with helicopters and field kitchens and medics and the training to go into desolate urban areas and search for people? (In all fairness, the National Guard is responding to the crisis, but I want more of them.)

But of course, the water is still rising because there are breeches in the levees that they haven’t figured out how to repair. Why are there breeches in the levees? Because Bush cut the budget for shoring up the edges of Lake Pontchartrain and cut the budget for doing research into preparations for a category 4 or 5 hurricane hit on New Orleans.

We could be talking about how wise it is to divert resources obviously sorely needed by the states to the “war on terror,” but that’s a hard and nuanced discussion.

Heaven forbid we have a hard and nuanced discussion. It’s much easier to just make sure everyone understands that the only people who are suffering are people who deserve it.

Rest easy, America.

15 thoughts on “Hurry Up and Blame the Victims!

  1. Couple of things Im not sure of from this, are you saying that its ok to loot in times of natural disaster? surely not every store being looted is a wal-mart(which we can all agree is evil and deserves whatever retribution god or community may choose to wreak upon it) are the shopkeeps seeing their lifes work carted off on cnn not to be protected? can they not expect any civility from their equally ravaged neighbors in a time of crisis? you seem to imply that the looters are somehow justified in their theft because of they are poor, but how does being poor justify stealing?

    two, the levee system on the mississippi is the cause of the flooding, it is one of the biggest boondoggle’s ever perpetrated on america, and its all the fault of the army corp, who is overfunded already, but in order to justify their continually increasing budgets, must invent poorly researched and poorly implemented cockamaie schemes like this levee system. Cutting funding to the corp was one of the best things bush has ever done, and he’s probably the only president in the modern age who has done so. Maybe the water is still rising because the city is built 8′ below sea level adjacent to a lake, a river and the ocean, all of which can flood. maybe the water is still rising because the natural flood plains of said lake, river and ocean are over built. maybe the water is rising because it is still raining in the mississippi watershed and because the water upriver is constrained by the levees it keeps flowing south into the city. Just saying there are a lot of potential explanations that have absolutely nothing to do with GWB, not everything that goes wrong in this world is his fault, you give him far too much credit.


  2. Ah, that’s a great post. I agree with every word you said. Someone on my friends list on lj was making some comments about how, if you’re too stupid to evacuate, you deserve what you get, and I honestly was blown away by that. I guess that kind of attitude is fueled by the media.

    I guess there are some people that just can’t fathom no money, noplace to go, or too old to drive yourself, etc. I am so sad for the people in New Orleans that had to stay behind.

  3. This is one area I know a bit more about being an engineer myself. LE is partly right. This one is so not the other W’s fault. But he’s massively wrong in calling the Mississippi River levee system a ‘boondoggle’.

    The levee system on the Mississippi River was built in direct response to a HUGE flood along the river back in 1925. Thousands died and millions in damage was done. And that was in 1925. These days the population is so high on the river that it would be much worse. The levee system protects that area. The only other option would be to move all the people away from the river, and to regularly lose prime cropland to flooding. Are you going to be the one to tell those people they have to move? I can just imagine the ‘forced relocation’ stories in every paper in the nation.

    The nature of flooding is complex. If you live in a flood prone area, eventually you’re going to get flooding. The best you can do is make sure it doesn’t happen often. It’s just like birth control. There’s a 95% chance that condom won’t break, but if you use a condom 95 times, then you’re odds are a hell of a lot higher.

    The trick with any flood control structure or plan is balancing risk versus cost. Is it worth two billion dollars to protect you from a flood that has a 0.02% chance of happening in a given year? (that’s a 1 in 200 shot, we call that a 500 year flood) And it’s about odds. You may spend the money and then go 600 years without getting it. Or you may get it twice in a decade. That’s the dilemma you face. And I can tell you from experience, it’s not an easy choice to make.

    There is a plan in place to keep NO dry. They started designing it back in 1965 after Hurricane Betsy. The budget is approximatley 1.4 billion and it’s supposed to be done around 2018. A few years ago they realized, it may very well not be enough. The design methods they used in the 60’s weren’t that sophisticated. Plus, the entire city is sinking. And, the coastal marshes between NO and the ocean are falling into the ocean. So every year the ocean gets a little closer to NO.

    Lightning may strike me for disagreeing with you twice in as many days, but B this is not W’s fault, and it is NOT about politics.


  4. W-

    Not to take over B’s blog or anything, while I agree that you, as an engineer may know more about flood control than I, a lowly lawyer (believe me it pains me to admit) that still doesnt mean the Corp is not, in fact, a boondoggle. While I agree that the Corp’s has done good work in the past and I am sure that its intentions are always the best, the question remains whether their approach is, in fact, the best. THe corp’s response to flooding is always build, build, build. It has never met a dyke or levee high enough a river it could not dredge deeper a natural waterway it could not make straighter. All with the best of intentions, mind, but always with an eye toward construction. Many of their earlier works we now find actually make the situation worse, and we have spent an awful lot undoing (or at least calling into question) what the Corp (and also the Soil Conservation Service – which is like the Corp, but on a smaller scale) has done in the name of flood control.

    Part of that is, of course, the way the corp is funded, it gets its share of the budget based upon the projects it undertakes. What this does, unfortunately, is skew toward more and bigger. The environmental impacts of its projects are given short shrift, the economic impacts of its projects are often highly suspect, and always the mantra is build, build, build.

    While flood control is a very complex and difficult area, I agree, I dont think that the answer is always found in bigger and bigger construction projects – which dollars to donuts the corp will make a push for after this mess.


  5. Yeah LE you’re right about some of that. Their are a lot of things the Corps has done in the past that they thought would work, but haven’t. I’m just saying that the Mississippi River system is not one of them.

    West Tennessee is a prime example of the Corps run amock. Their is only one major river that hasn’t been straightened by the Corps or some other government agency. At the time they were doing it for flood control, but we’ve discovered since then that mother nature tends to correct back the other way, and it doesn’t really help. But back in the 50’s and 60’s what were they supposed to tell the farmers who wanted to grow crops there? Congress has as much to do with Corps construction projects as the Corps itself. A Corp project is prime pork in your home district.

    The mindset of a structural solution is a very engineer thing. It’s just how the mind of most engineers works. You can fix just about any problem if you want to spend enough money and build big enough. But that mindset is changing these days. The focus is shifting a lot more toward non-structural solutions. But honestly, when it comes to protecting New Orleans, it’s either build a levee, or move the city. And we shouldn’t let the pendelum swing all the way in the other direction and decide that building something is never the way to go.

    Sorry for all the long almost off topic posting today B.


  6. Are you fucking kidding me?! Don’t either of you dare apologize or we’re going to have the biggest fist fight seen in this town since Scott Hendricks and Tim McGraw duked it out for Faith.

    This has been some of the most awesome and thoughtful and thought-provoking conversation and I’m loving every second of it, even if I do feel like y’all are just arguing over the best way to call me an idiot.

    That being said, though I see your point about Bush, I’m going to continue to lay blame right at his door and the door of the American people who voted for him. We made a choice about him, said that he could decide where to put our money, and he’s put our money in the war on terrorism or the Idiot’s Crusade or whatever name it has now, and we need to take a long, hard look at whether that was the right decision.

    As for the Corps, being from the Midwest, of course, I’m very wary of them. That being said, I think that you, LE, and I continue to fight over our very different worldviews. Sure, I agree that so much in this country is done by just throwing enormous amounts of money at it and hoping that what doesn’t get wasted will actually help. You find that to be unbearably outrageous. I find that to be the way things work.

    As for the Corps and flood control on the Mississippi, I don’t think we can overlook the most important reason for the levees. It’s not so that people can live along the river–that’s a fortunate side effect that keeps people happy.

    All the dams and levees along the Mississippi are to keep a passable channel down the middle of the river. As we all know, if not for the locks and dams and levees, there’d be great stretches of the summer when the water’d be too shallow for barge traffic north of St. Louis.

    That would be an economic disaster for the farmers who depend on the river to transport grain.

  7. Dams and levees are generally about flood control. In a way they make it harder to keep a navigation channel because they mean it can’t move like rivers like to do.

    There are lots of other structures in the river that help with the nav channel, and constant dredging. That’s probably the Corps’ biggest yearly accomplishment, keeping the river open.


  8. Well, I’m not an engineer, nor in the Army Corp, but I play one on TeeVee.

    Seriously, though, my brother is currently employed by the Army Corp, and has, for the last 25 years, been employed by either the Corp, or in the Dept. of the Interior, or the FDA doing field studies and such. He is known as somewhat of a wetlands expert, and lived in Nawlins a few years back for about 6 months while working on a study.

    While I do not profess to knowing much at all, other than what I have read, about the specific issues confronting New Orleans, I do know that there have been numerous times when the Corp has been called in, by law, to give an opinion on some project or another. Congress, in all their wisdom, voting on bills and projects, is not, in most instances, required to comply by the Corp’s recommendations.

    For instance, when we moved here 12 years ago, he looked at our flood plain. Several years later, when another subdivision was going up about 3 miles east, impacting the creek that runs through our yard, the Corp advised that a sizable retention pond be placed there, as it would impact people (us and our neighbors) several miles downstream. Yet money (developers) spoke and had the final word, and no retention pond was required. This spring about TEN FEET of our yard near the creek fell in. The Corp (and my brother, who went on the trip) also advised against drilling in the National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and we all know how that turned out.

    The Corp may, in fact, be a boondoggle in some or even many other instances, but I would also guess that economic issues play a large part in what does and does not get done in many places.

    I just gots to defend my brother’s work, yo.

  9. The scariest part of all the hell thats broken loose in New Orleans is that this isn’t the worst case scenario of what could have happened. Please tell me I’m wrong if I am, but New Orleans was hit with a category four hurrican instead of a category five, and the hurricane didn’t hit the city head on.

    It could have been much worse, and look how things are now.

  10. Since I’ve already opined on the rest, allow me to say ‘bon chance’ in regard to your cardigan.

    What type of sleeves are you putting on it?

    I love knitting sweaters; not as much as socks, but I do love them….

  11. Judging from the coverage I’ve seen, a big part of the problem seems to be that one of the levees breached (failed) and let in half of the lake.

    Peg, could your brother get me a job????


  12. There are different kinds of sleeves? Oh. Well… hmm…

    You see, this is literally the second thing I’ve ever knit in my entire life, the first thing being a little swatch of practice stitches.

    So, I don’t know what kind of sleeves they are. They’re the kind arms go in and they’re kind of small and then I’ll have to do some increases and then I don’t know, beg someone to teach me how to cast-off, I guess.

    I’m always just starting shit with know idea how to bring it to a meaningful close.

    Ha, obviously.

    I will make no more arguments about the purpose of levees and locks and dams except to point out that before the levees and locks and dams went in, it was quite possible at many points on the Mississippi to walk to shore when your boat wrecked, even if that was in the middle of the river.

    You can’t tell me that having a well-defined and stable bank hasn’t made even knowing where to dredge much easier.

    I won’t hear it.

    No, I don’t care if you know more about it than me. I don’t care if it’s your job. La, la, la, I’m not listening.

    (W., let me know if that works, and I’m going to start trying it on LE when he’s backed me into a corner.)

  13. Yeah, it worked. But the logic helped too. You could go a lot of ways with that discussion.

    The la la la’s did convince me not to quibble with you on the ‘stable bank’ part.


  14. Raglans, Set-ins, Capped, etc. There are tons of sleeves.

    And I’ll happily teach you to cast off. (Which is one of my favourite parts of knitting…)

  15. This is lazy track-back. I agree with your post, Aunt B, and the following discussion is great.

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