Time to crack heads

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Troops are finally moving into New Orleans in realistic numbers, and it’s past time. What took the government so long? The thin veneer separating civilization and chaos, which we earlier worried might collapse in the absence of swift action, has collapsed.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has suspended his police department’s search-and-rescue operations to struggle with looters. Health-care centers remain under siege. The evacuation of thousands of refugees from the squalor and stink of the Superdome, inexcusably delayed, was delayed further when someone fired on a military helicopter. A National Guardsman was shot outside the arena. A Mississippi man murdered his own sister over a bag of ice. Rotting bodies float free above submerged streets and crying children haven’t eaten in days. Their parents plead from rooftops for rescue, and survivors of the flood line the freeways by the thousands, stumbling in the sweltering heat with no food, no water and no place to go. If this is not hell, it is close to it.

This horror will not subside with the flood. The government must treat the battlefield of Katrina as it would any other field of engagement: Protect and provide for the innocent and eliminate the enemy, and do it now, before we lose New Orleans. Send the 40,000 troops Gov. Kathleen Blanco has requested. If looters fire on the troops, the troops should answer with suppressing fire. If the United States can project power anywhere in the world in a matter of hours, it can defend New Orleans and the coast of Mississippi.

We expected to see, many hours ago, the president we saw standing atop the ruin of the World Trade Center, rallying a dazed country to action. We’re pleased he finally caught a ride home from his vacation, but he risks losing the one trait his critics have never dented: His ability to lead, and be seen leading.

He returns to the scene of the horror today, and that’s all to the good. His presence will rally broken spirits. But he must crack heads, if bureaucratic heads need cracking, to get the food, water and medicine to the people crying for help in New Orleans and on the Mississippi coast. The list of things he has promised is a good list, but there is no time to dally, whether by land, sea or air. We should have delivered them yesterday. Americans are dying.

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