“In peace and prosperity, states and individuals have better sentiments, because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes.” So the historian Thucydides explained, some 2,400 years ago, grotesque rampages in a revolution on Corfu.
Arson, looting, shooting at helicopters, random murder, gang rape and stampede supposedly only occur elsewhere — in Baghdad or Rwanda, as if Americans are exempt from the frailty of culture simply because we live in the United States.
We are not, as we saw in New Orleans. When the protocols of American civilization vanished in storm and flood, the devolution to instinctual savagery proved only minutes away.
Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina and the breaching of the Lake Pontchartrain levees above New Orleans ushered in not one but successive storms of human and natural brutality.
First, we pressed nature one too many times. America forgot there are very few cities on Earth below sea level. And New Orleans is positioned on a gale-prone coast, aside the delta of one of the largest rivers in the world, and at the mercy of a huge lake damned right above the city. That New Orleans heretofore had not experienced ruin in the manner of a swampy Venice or Naples beneath Mount Vesuvius was the real miracle.
But besides topographical peril, New Orleans suffers from an ossified Louisianan political culture that has not evolved very much from the crass demagoguery of Huey Long of the 1930s.
The party machine’s reason for being is to provide exemptions for the very wealthy and subsidies for the dependent poor. We saw the dividends of this old “every man a king” politics in the scapegoating by paralyzed public officials.
The clueless mayor of New Orleans, who initially hesitated over federal requests to evacuate the entire city, was reduced to expletive-filled rants as hundreds of empty public buses sat idle. The teary governor of Louisiana whined mostly about the federal government. Meanwhile Sen. Mary Landrieu railed at the president: “I might likely have to punch him — literally.”
This sad trio proved how fortunate New York was to have a Rudy Giuliani on September 11, or Los Angeles a Richard Riordan in a time of earthquake.
Although millions of others in nearby ravaged Mississippi rebounded without much violence, many in a densely populated, unassimilated and poor urban African-American population — one largely ignored by whites and manipulated by racial demagogues — chose to stay or were left behind in a submerged New Orleans.
Yet the stranded somehow assumed government services could provide instant succor at Ground Zero of a biblical catastrophe. When such agencies could not, looters stole appliances (despite having no electricity). With little food, some filched liquor. In the midst of water everywhere, arsonists managed to ignite a mall. With roads impassable, others still roamed the city to rape women and shoot at police.
In response, Jesse Jackson jetted in not to organize self-help brigades but only to inflame the situation by calling the mayhem “the hull of a slave ship.” Civil Rights activist Randall Robinson, without any evidence, immediately alleged — and later retracted — charges of cannibalism: “[B]lack hurricane victims in New Orleans have begun eating corpses to survive.”
We are also in a controversial war. So there were more political storms to come — one of cynically manipulating human misery to tar George W. Bush.
Assorted experts have assured the public there were plenty of National Guardsmen in the area, hurricanes in recent years have not been as frequent as earlier in the century and that upkeep of recently reinforced dikes was adequately funded.
No matter. Partisans from Robert Kennedy Jr. to Sidney Blumenthal charged global warming or the Iraq war or inadequate environmental legislation or the president himself caused the thousands of deaths. Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan, of course, screamed as well to reclaim their lost media attention.
It did not end even there. A few abroad could not resist expressing delight at the misery of the world’s hyperpower. A Kuwaiti official, Muhammad Yousef Al-Mlaifi, director of a state research center, also cited superhuman retribution. Now safe from Saddam and with oil prices sky-high, he assured his former American saviors that Allah was punishing us infidels.
Jurgen Trittin, Germany’s environmental minister — without memory of Americans eliminating German Nazism, saving Berlin from starvation, keeping the Red Army out of Western Europe and lobbying for German unification — preened that the ruin of New Orleans was duly earned for our neglect of the global atmosphere. This was from a government that counts on exporting thousands of its luxury gas-guzzling Mercedes, Audis and BMWs to the United States.
We could have weathered one storm, but four or five natural and human tempests at once reduced us to abject calamity over New Orleans — bringing “men’s characters to a level with their fortunes.”
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and is a nationally syndicated columnist.