Mon, Sep 19, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Disasters expose the weaknesses of our politicians

By Mary Riddell  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

At 8.46am four years ago, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. Many hundreds died in that instant. The emergency services' response began within five seconds.

At 4pm two-and-a-half weeks ago, the US national weather service warned that the hurricane about to hit New Orleans would cause "human suffering incredible by modern standards." The following morning, as citizens drowned on their front porches, US President George W. Bush attended a cake-cutting photo-opportunity to mark Republican Senator John McCain's 69th birthday.

And now another anniversary rolls around. On Sept. 11, 2001, the world reached out to a stricken America, unaware that US helplessness was a brief prelude to an era of power run mad. From Manhattan to Mesopotamia to the Mississippi, we have come full circle. Hurricane Katrina has turned a superpower into a victim again.

Only this time, few rally to the president. Rotting bodies lie like rubbish sacks in the streets of New Orleans, 42 percent of Americans think Bush has done a "bad" or "terrible" job, and the world looks at his catastrophe management in horror and derision.

Blaming Bush is easy. That is not to say it is wrong. It would have been better if scientists' warnings had been heeded and the levees strengthened. It would have been preferable if the US had not housed its poorest below the Plimsoll line of civilization, and if the emergency controller had not been a klutz called "Brownie" who used to run horse shows. Ideally, the president would learn to prioritize national disasters and birthday parties.

But the hurricane is not about one scapegoat, however powerful, nor is it just a fable of America. Britons may be shocked that obese inhabitants of the richest nation can be victims of starvation too.

They may be startled that many New Orleans citizens are poor black people who might shoot and loot and who have never set foot in the French quarter, with its filigree balconies, jazz clubs and a population that is 95 percent white. But Britain, with its own gaping social divide, has no excuse for smugness.

The universal lesson of Katrina is broader, though, than inequality. Timothy Garton Ash argues that we have witnessed how, with the removal of the staples of civilized life, such as water and personal security, people revert to a "Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all." At the hint of a dirty bomb or some other apocalyptic onslaught, societies could become "decivilized."

This is a very gloomy creed. It is true that, in extremis, hungry flood victims are rarely to be mistaken for Jane Austen heroines. You will not find them sitting around debating whether Hobbes' gospel of state control was more relevant than the benign anarchy outlined by Proudhon, who thought that "property was theft." They will get down to Wal-Mart and grab some food and drink, if necessary at rifle point. Such action may or may not seem more despicable than the online looting of white-collar barbarians now setting up bogus flood relief appeals.

The Lord of the Flies scenario is, by definition, nothing new. The Greeks coined the word "barbaros" for anyone who did not speak their language. To Marx, barbarism was a synonym for capitalist destruction, a theme embroidered by Osama bin Laden's favorite writer, Sayyid Qutb, who used the term jahiliyya to label the West a materialist hell meriting attack. And so to Sept. 11 and a new chapter in barbaric action. The timeline linking September 2001 to today is studded with the headstones of its antagonists and martyrs.

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