Tuesday, September 6, 2005

In the Atlantic Monthly a few years ago, Robert D. Kaplan went to Liberia, Sierra Leone and other failed jurisdictions of west Africa and concluded many “citizens” of these “states,” roaming the streets raping and killing, belonged to a phenomenon called “reprimitivized man.”

Anyone watching TV in recent days will have seen plenty of “reprimitivized man,” not in Liberia or Somalia but in Louisiana. Cops smashing the Wal-Mart DVD cabinet so they can get their share of the booty along with the rest of the looters, gangs firing on a children’s hospital and on rescue helicopters, hurricane victims raped in the New Orleans Convention Center. If you’re minded, as are many anti-Americans, to regard the United States as a depraved swamp, it was a grand old week: Mother Nature delivered the swamp, but plenty of natives supplied the depravity.

Not all of them, of course. But it doesn’t really matter if it’s only 5 percent or 2 percent or one-hundredth of 1 percent if everybody else gives them free rein. Not exactly the most impressive law enforcement agency even on a good day, the New Orleans Police Department sent some 80 officers to rescue the rape victims trapped in the Convention Center, but were beaten back by the mob. Meanwhile, the ever more pitiful governor was, unlike many of her fellow Louisianans, safe on dry land but still floundering out of her depth, unable to stand up to the lawlessness even rhetorically or to communicate anything other than emotive impotence.

With most disasters, it’s a good rule to let the rescue teams do their work and leave the sniping until folks are safe. But in New Orleans this last week the emergency work has been seriously hampered by actual literal sniping, as at that hospital.

The authorities lost control of the streets. Which one of Tom Ridge’s homeland-security color codes does that fall under?

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks many people who should have known better argued it was somehow a vindication of government. “One of the things that’s changed so much since September 11,” agreed Vice President Dick Cheney, “is the extent to which people do trust the government — big shift — and value it, and have high expectations for what we can do.”

Hard to see why he would say that. September 11 was an appalling comprehensive failure of just about every relevant federal agency. The only government that worked that day was local and state: The great defining image, redeeming American honor at a moment of national humiliation, was those brave New York firemen pounding up the stairs of the World Trade Center. What consolations can be drawn from the lop-sided tango between slapdash bureaucrats and subhuman predators in New Orleans?

To be fair, next door Mississippi’s Gov. Haley Barbour has been the Rudy Giuliani of the hour. And there are many tales of great courage, like the teams from the Children’s Hospital of Alabama who have been helicoptering in to New Orleans to rescue newborns. The comparison with September 11 isn’t exact, but it’s fair to this extent: Katrina was the biggest disaster on American soil since that day provoked the total overhaul of the system and the devotion of billions of dollars and the finest minds in the nation to prioritizing homeland security. It was, thus, the first major test of the post-September 11 structures. Happy with the results?

Muhammad Yousef Al-Mlaifi, director of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Endowment (and no, I’ve no idea what that means, though feel free to do your own jokes), wrote a hurricane essay arguing the novel line that “The Terrorist Katrina is a Soldier of Allah.” You could sort of see his point. Imagine if al Qaeda were less boneheaded and had troubled themselves to learn a bit more about the Great Satan’s weak spots. Imagine if they had decided to blow up a couple of levees and flood a great American city. Would local and state government have responded any more effectively than last week? After all, Katrina, unlike Osama, let ‘em know she was heading their way.

The nation’s taxpayers will now be asked to rebuild New Orleans. The rationale for doing so is that it is a great city of national significance.

Fine. But, if it’s of national significance, what have all the homeland-security task forces being doing these last four years? Why is the defense of the city still left to a system of levees, each with its own individual administrative regime? If it’s of national significance, why did the porkmeisters of the national legislature and national executive branch slash a request by the Army Corps of Engineers for $105 million for additional flood-protection measures there down to just more than $40 million, at the same time they approved a $230 million bridge to an uninhabited Alaskan island? Given that the transport infrastructure’s already in place, maybe it makes more sense to rebuild New Orleans in Alaska.

One thing that became clear two or three months after “the day that everything changed” is that nothing changed: Huge swathes of the political culture in America remain committed to a bargain that stiffs the people at every level, a system of lavish funding of pseudo-action. You could have done as the antiwar left wants and reallocated every dollar spent in Iraq to Louisiana. Or you could have done as some of the rest of us want and reallocated every buck spent on, say, subsidizing Ted Turner’s and Sam Donaldson’s play-farming activities. But, in either case, I’ll bet Louisiana’s kleptocrat public service would have pocketed the dough and carried on as usual — and, come the big day, the state would still have flopped out and New Orleans’ foul-mouthed mayor would still be ranting about why it was all everybody else’s fault.

Those levees broke; they failed. And you think about Chicago and San Francisco and Boston and you wonder what’s waiting to fail there. The assumption was that after September 11 big towns and small took stock and identified their weak points. That’s what they told us they were doing, and that’s what they were getting big bucks to do.

But in New Orleans no one had a plan that addressed levee failure, and no one had a plan for the large percentage of vehicle-less citizens who would be unable to evacuate, and no one had a plan to deal with widespread looting.

New Orleans is a below-sea-level city with high crime and a low rate of automobile ownership. Given all those known local factors, you wonder how the city would cope with something truly surprising — like, say, a biological attack.

Oh, well, maybe the September 11 Commission can rename themselves the Katrina Kommission. Back in the real world, America’s enemies will draw many useful lessons from the events of this last week. Will America?

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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