Falluja Floods the Superdome

The devastation that hurricane christened Katrina brought to the Gulf Coast (of the United States) early September this year, led many (including Americans) to compare it with the Gulf of the Middle-east, particularly Iraq: “It’s downtown Baghdad,” wrote a tourist Denise Bollinger, who snapped pictures of looting in the French Quarter. “It’s insane.”

He was referring to the looting that was allowed in Baghdad, if not activated, by the invading army as it entered the city (through bribes, as suggested by some sources. Within next hundred years an honest Western historian is bound to wrest himself free, to lay bare the whole truth).

New Orleans and Baghdad – the situations within them were the same: the folks were poor, hungry, deprived, and desperate. (In Baghdad, an egg cost you 2-3 dollars, as a result of the 13 years of bombing and sanctions). In Orleans, looting was the best way to express the outrage in the breasts, and the only possible response to the twisting intestines in the bowels.  How poor the Afro-Americans of the South have been kept can best be judged from the fact that even coins were worthy of grab. Said a dispatch, “Looters picked through casino slot machines for coins.” This was more than downtown Baghdad.

Only the well to do could flee when orders for evacuation were issued. Hundreds of thousands were trapped (like Sunni townsmen in Iraq who cannot flee before the American forces arrive). In New Orleans, 30,000 were sheltered in a football stadium. But, “We are out here like pure animals. We don’t have help,” the Rev. Issac Clark, 68, said outside the New Orleans Convention Center, where corpses lay in the open and he and other evacuees complained that they were dropped off and given nothing — no food, no water, no medicine. At one point looting spiraled so out of control that the Mayor ordered virtually the entire police force to abandon search-and-rescue efforts and focus on the brazen packs of thieves who were turning increasingly hostile. This again showed the true face of the American culture: materials are worthier than humans; let the humans on rooftops die, but goods on supermarket racks must be saved first. Little wonder that a tourist, Debbie Durso of Washington, Mich., said she asked a police officer for assistance and his response was, ‘Go to hell — it’s every man for himself.’

The situation at the Superdome was no different. A communiqué said, at least seven bodies were scattered outside. An old man in a chaise lounge lay dead in a grassy median as hungry babies wailed around him. Around the corner, an elderly woman lay dead in her wheelchair, covered with a blanket, and another body lay beside her wrapped in a sheet. “I don’t treat my dog like that,” 47-year-old Daniel Edwards said as he pointed at the woman in the wheelchair. “I buried my dog.”

The scene of suffering in the once jolliest of cities stunned the people over the world. “We’re not even dealing with dead bodies,” Mayer Nagin said at one time. “They’re just pushing them on the side.” One of those rescued was 40-year-old Kevin Montgomery, who spent three days shuttling between the attic of a one-story home and a canopy he built on the roof.  Every once in a while, Mongtomery would see a body float by.

There were a few dissimilarities in details though. In Baghdad there was no shooting between the looters. In New Orleans looters shot at each other. They also shot at law-enforcing authorities. And the law-enforcing authorities shot at them. In one instance, the National guards that had probably just come back from Iraq killed six of the citizens. Said a report, “Residents reported hundreds of looters on the streets, carjackings, armed robberies and even shots fired at helicopters evacuating patients from local hospitals.” Said another dispatch, “one gang had commandeered a telephone company van to carry out robberies while Fox News television said two men with AK47 semi-automatic rifles had opened fire on a police station.” Another report said that, “at one point the evacuation of the Superdome had to be suspended after shots were fired at a military helicopter.”

The mind quickly traveled to Iraq, except that this was Americans vs. Americans. Of course, it was brief. But it said something about what to expect if US is struck by a crisis of longer spell. European news-media were quick to note this. Understandably, they were dismayed by the stark reality. Some wondered what it would be like if a similar calamity were to strike Britain.

Another difference between Baghdad and the jewel American city was that there were no gangs of rapists from among the Iraqis, seen neither earlier nor later, invading upon the honor of the common citizens. (Pictures posted on the Internet after the invasion of Iraq showed Americans alone in the vile acts). Doctors in hospitals fled – at a time most required – fearing gangs of rapists.

“I cannot believe what I am seeing here in the New Orleans area,” said a correspondent. I’ve been reporting for 21 years around the world and I’ve never seen the likes of this. I spoke to a man who was beaten up at the Superdome. His jaw was broken and he had a friend with him who had a concussion and was basically unconscious. The man with the broken jaw said that he had another friend who was beaten to death at the Superdome. He said that they had no choice but to leave his body there.”

Iraq was right on top of the memory-layer. Said the Mayor of New Orleans, “You can do everything for other countries but you can’t do nothing for your own people. You can go overseas with the military (meaning, to Iraq and Afghanistan) but you can’t get them down here.”

But when the military got down there, Gov. Kathleen Blanco issued a strange warning: “Hundreds of National Guardsmen hardened on the battlefield in Iraq have landed in New Orleans. They have M-16s and they’re locked and loaded,” she said. “These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so, and I expect they will.”

More than willing? But that happens in Iraq doesn’t it? Again and again, Iraq figured. Lt. Gen. Steven Blum of the National Guard said 7,000 National Guardsmen arriving in Louisiana on Friday would be dedicated to restoring order in New Orleans. He said half of them had just returned from assignments overseas and are “highly proficient in the use of lethal force.”

“Like most journalists in Baghdad,” wrote Patrick Cockburn in an article entitled, Detachment from Reality, In Iraq and New Orleans, “I keep a TV on with the sound off in the corner of my hotel room. When I see menacing-looking American soldiers with guns cocked hammering on the door of a house I suspect it has something to do with Iraq and turn the sound up. Not any more. Since the levees broke in New Orleans, images of the disaster there look very like scenes I have got used to in Baghdad. The helicopters overhead, the deployment of great military force with uncertain purpose, the endless press conferences by politicians, officials and soldiers. Most glaring are the parallels between the way the US administration behaved in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and their reaction to the devastating results of Hurricane Katrina.” (The Independent & Arab News, Sept.11, 05)

As if the two situations were not parallel enough, even sounds were. An explosion at a warehouse rocked a wide area of New Orleans and jolted the residents, lighting up the sky and sending a pillar of acrid gray smoke over a ruined city awash in perhaps thousands of corpses, under siege from looters, and seething with anger and resentment. A second large fire erupted downtown in an old retail building in a dry section of Canal Street.

A city which spent its night in fun and frolic, dance and music, sex and gambling, suddenly lay under 20 feet of water, resulting in as many refugees as in Iraq: one million. And, just as the Iraqi refugees are of no concern to the surrounding sister-countries, one official in Texas, a “white country,” expressed concern over the future of 250,000 overwhelmingly Afro-American refugees who had been sheltered in the state: “Hopefully,” quipped one, “they will move out.”

Back in the areas struck by Katrina, worse things were happening. One of the most outrageous pieces of news that emerged is: “With gangs of rapists and looters rampaging through wards in the flooded city, senior doctors took the harrowing decision to give massive overdoses of morphine to those they believed could not make it out alive.” In an extraordinary interview with “The Mail on Sunday,” (as reported by Caroline Graham and Jo Knowsley), one New Orleans doctor told how she ‘prayed for God to have mercy on her soul’ after she ignored every tenet of medical ethics and ended the lives of patients she had earlier fought to save.  Her account has been corroborated by a hospital orderly and by local government officials. One emergency official, William ‘Forest’ McQueen, said: “Those who had no chance of making it were given a lot of morphine and lain down in a dark place to die.” The doctor, who finally fled her hospital late last week in fear of being murdered by the armed looters, said: “This was not murder, this was compassion.” Can the American sick trust their hospitals after this?

There were other striking similarities between the two Gulfs. It is not uncommon to hear of soldiers returning from Iraq not reporting back. They abscond, hiding in Canada, New Zealand, and other places. In New Orleans, those of the law enforcing authorities who abandoned their duty and disappeared after experiencing the horrors were in hundreds. (An official called them cowards).

There was another resemblance. A prominent problem noticed among servicemen returning from Iraq is suicide. Upon return they are actually detained in military hospitals and rehabilitation centers, before they are allowed home. The instruction that their families are given say that they need not call the police unless “he has a knife against the throat” – meaning, some violent behavior should not be surprising. The families are also told to monitor suicide tendencies. Many still commit suicides. The same tendencies surfaced in New Orleans: “I’ve got some firefighters and police officers that have been pretty much traumatized,” one official said. “And we’ve already had a couple of suicides so I am cycling them out as we speak. They need physical and psychological evaluations.”

Another similarity was in the way the media handled the crisis. In Iraq they have a gun on their temple, banning entry into areas of thick conflict. Embedded journalists alone are allowed somewhere close to the areas of conflict, though not inside. The subtly expressed instructions were no different for those covering the hurricane carnage: no appalling scenes were to be reported, no floating bodies were to be shown and no coverage of “baggage conveyor used in triage area of the Airport for grim task of moving bodies, because of the shortage of stretchers!” Like in Iraq, freedom of the press was to either stay out, or make things look normal.

This stage managing of the media was noted by Maureen Dowd (Readers’ Column – New York Times) apart from many others: “Shirt-sleeves rolled up, W. finally landed in Hell yesterday and chuckled about his wild boozing days in “the great city” of N’Awlins. He was clearly moved. “You know, I’m going to fly out of here in a minute,” he said on the runway at the New Orleans International Airport, “but I want you to know that I’m not going to forget what I’ve seen.” Out of the cameras’ range, and avoided by W., was a convoy of thousands of sick and dying people, some sprawled on the floor or dumped on baggage carousels at a makeshift unit inside the terminal.” This reminded Frank Rich of Iraq. He wrote: “After dispatching Katrina with a few sentences of sanctimonious boilerplate (“our hearts and prayers are with our fellow citizens”), he turned to his more important task. The war in Iraq is World War II. George W. Bush is F.D.R. And anyone who refuses to stay his course is soft on terrorism and guilty of a pre-9/11 “mind-set of isolation and retreat.” Yet even as Mr. Bush promised “victory” (a word used nine times in this speech on Tuesday), he was standing at the totemic scene of his failure. It was along this same San Diego coastline that he declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln more than two years ago. For this return engagement, The Washington Post reported, the president’s stage managers made sure he was positioned so that another hulking aircraft carrier nearby would stay off-camera, lest anyone be reminded of that premature end of “major combat operations.”

That in the wake of the destruction brought by Katrina Iraq was heavy on the minds of many Americans was evident in many ways. Various agencies worked out estimates of losses. One of them said that it will cost America 300 billion dollars to rebuild the area: an amount, the article said, equal to that spent on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As the carnage in Iraq seemed to surface in full vengeance in the hurricane hit area of the Gulf Coast, even the word Falluja was used to describe the callous American response to the disaster. Frank Rich gave his incisive criticism the title: “Falluja Floods the Superdome.”

It would not be far from truth to say that what Bush and Blair did to Iraq over 15 years, Katrina did it in a day. Says the Perennial Truth:

Do the inhabitants of the city feel secure that Our punishment shall not come upon them at night, while they are asleep? Do the people of the city feel secure that Our punishment shall not come upon them in brought daylight while they are in their playful activities? Do they feel secure against God’s devising? Lo, none feels secure against God’s devising but a people (destined to be) the losers. Does not (the fact) guide those who inherit the earth after its (previous inhabitants) that if We willed, We could afflict them for their sins?” (The Qur’an, 7: 97-100)

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