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New Orleans Is Us | The Nation

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The Liberal Media

New Orleans Is Us

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Former Nixon Administration felon turned evangelical preacher Charles Colson recently claimed on his talk-radio program that God "allowed" Katrina to happen as a reminder of the importance of the war on terror and "to get our attention so that we don't delude ourselves into thinking that all we have to do is put things back the way they were and life will be normal again."

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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I don't approve, but I do see the logic. Katrina has forced open a window through which the media have finally glimpsed the Bush Administration's spectacular incompetence at keeping Americans safe and secure. The evidence had been there for years, but most reporters missed it, hidden as it was by a fog of rhetoric, ideology, political intimidation and tabloidization. But Bush's popularity has nose-dived, Cheney is nowhere to be seen and Karl Rove's curtain has been drawn aside to reveal a plump, powerless wizard whose only talent rests in the realm of illusion. Katrina has also demonstrated how ludicrous it was that in 2004 Bush managed to win his first genuine presidential election victory by playing the "security" card.

In the hurricane's wake, reporters for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times have all taken the opportunity to delve into local, state and federal plans for emergency evacuation. The "plan" in each case is exactly the same: chaos. Thanks to this Administration's inexplicable insouciance--together with media's inability or unwillingness to call our attention to it--millions of Americans will die unnecessarily in the event of, say, an attack on a New Jersey chemical plant or a New York nuclear reactor or a devastating earthquake in San Francisco.

I first became aware of the Administration's near-criminal negligence toward this most crucial aspect of its post-9/11 mandate when The New Republic's Jonathan Chait wrote a devastating exposé titled "The 9/10 President" in March 2003. Not only was the Administration ignoring the basics; it was actively sabotaging bipartisan Congressional efforts to begin to do what was necessary, lest the cost encroach on either its war plans or tax cuts. As Chait wrote, "Bush's record on homeland security ought to be considered a scandal. Yet, not only is it not a scandal, it's not even a story, having largely failed to register with the public, the media, or even the political elite."

Since then, I have picked up report after maddening report documenting the sorry state of homeland security. I read in Congressional Quarterly, "According to the administration's own budget documents, the Bush plan for funding first responders amounts to double-entry bookkeeping: changes in the ledger that would result in no net increase in the amount of federal funding flowing to cities, counties, and states." I read, according to the Partnership for Public Service, "Perhaps more than any other terrorist threat, bioterrorism will place huge burdens on small pools of medical, scientific and technical expertise. These organizations are already exhibiting hairline cracks--some would say fractures--that may presage disaster." I read, according to the Brookings Institution, "The United States is, at the moment, not well prepared to manage [an emergency] evacuation of this sort in the relevant time frame.... The federal government currently lacks the ability to [rapidly] generate and broadcast specific, geographically tailored evacuation instructions" across the country. I read, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, "America remains dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond to a catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil." And finally, I read, according to the Progressive Policy Institute, "The administration has failed to adequately fund a number of essential homeland security functions. In the absence of presenting a compelling vision of the changes necessary to protect the homeland, the Bush administration has failed to push back on the government bureaucracies that have resisted meaningful change. In short, President Bush has failed to fulfill his promise to make homeland security his top priority." (In 2002, it is sad to say, before Bush and "Brownie" had their way with FEMA, Brookings had occasion to praise the agency for being a very effective arm of the government during its years of "determined effort" aiding the victims of catastrophic disasters like hurricanes, floods and forest fires.)

That our ports and nuclear and chemical facilities remain unprotected and that no serious plans have been made to save American lives in a post-attack environment might be considered news by some. That homeland security has become just one more spare rib in the Republican pork barrel--doled out in greater measure to the citizens of Montana than New York City, Los Angeles or Washington--might have been viewed as a scandal on the order of, I dunno, a missing blonde in Aruba or the ravings of a mad movie star on Oprah Winfrey's couch. Trudy Lieberman, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review last year, looked at this question and found "coverage of the effort to prevent another 9/11 has been spotty, episodic, reactive, and shallow." She points to problems in covering a story that's complex and bureaucratic, without a clear narrative. But there's another problem with covering the story as well. As the Center for American Progress has laid out, the Administration chose to fund its disastrous war in Iraq at a cost of billions of dollars instead of investing that money, and human resources, in protecting our nation. Point that out too loudly, however, and the Rove/Sullivan/Hitchens Axis of Ideological Correctness beat their chests and accuse you of aiding terrorists and hating America.

The deadly bungling in Louisiana and Mississippi that so shocked Americans would not have been so surprising had the media paid more attention to the combination of ideological obsession, incompetence and dishonesty that has characterized not merely the Iraq War but also this Administration's economic policies, its environmental policies--indeed, its entire faith-based governing philosophy. In New Orleans you see the results.

Seen in the context of Administration planning, New Orleans was not an unpredictable disaster--it was a model. And when the next disaster comes, we will all be under water.

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