The saddest sight last week was of the US first family taking a quick one-day holiday in Florida. Crashing visitor numbers and plummeting fish sales have devastated the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. There is talk of an 80 percent drop in revenues in some resorts, yet figures show just 16 of the state’s 180 holiday beaches are at all polluted, while the bulk of the spill appears to have dispersed or be dispersing out at sea. Having hyped the disaster for political purposes, the president is now frantically trying to play it down.
The spill has been another classic of state terror, in which incident and response are wholly out of proportion to one another. As the oil leak began back in April, US President Barack Obama declared a disaster, banned fishing in 37 percent of the Gulf and ordered a halt to underwater oil exploration, putting some 27,000 jobs at risk. Columnists screamed it was “Obama’s 9/11” and demanded he “harness the nation’s outrage.” He was attacked for playing golf within 58 days of the disaster.
Hardly a day passed without the president castigating BP, the hated “British Petroleum” — never its US site operators, Transocean and Halliburton, or his own regulators. It was a field day for xenophobes. The president used the sort of language normally visited on global terrorists. He was going to “get BP” and make them “pay for this.” It was another Hurricane Katrina, but one that could thankfully be blamed on foreigners.
A Louisiana seafood supplier declared: “If I had a bomb, I would put it on London” — which would have him in Guantanamo Bay if he were Muslim and speaking of New York.
Foreigners had raped the US. It was they, they, they ...
Now, mysteriously, Obama speaks of we, we, we ... who “have this thing under control.” His environment adviser, Carol Browner, says “the vast majority of the oil appears to have gone.” Less than 10 percent of coastline saw any oil at all. There have been no sightings of dead fish floating in the sea and most fishing will soon be “back to normal.” The Gulf is apparently “clean, safe and open for business,” and a lovely place to take the kids. It is OK, everyone. Disaster has turned to triumph, so let us all think about the midterm elections.
So whose fault really was the collapse in the local economy? It began with a failed oil well, responsibility resting with BP, but blame still not apportioned. Yet, as every terrorist knows, it is not the bomb that does the real damage, it is the publicity multiplier given it by the media and politics. The bomb causes the bang, the target is then relied on to supply the megaphone.
So it has proved in the Gulf. Competing scientists have had a field day. While some kept up the hysteria last week, with such declarations as “We don’t know the long term yet,” those with links to the administration or fishing for BP’s US$500 million offered to Gulf environmental research are suddenly optimists.
Most of the oil has mysteriously evaporated, like that from the biggest similar disaster, the dumping of oil into the Persian Gulf in 1991 by Iraqi forces.
The issue is apparently no longer the number of “barrels” spilled but the sort of oil, the location of the spill and the temperature of the ambient water and air. Contamination of most wildlife appears to have been minimal. Even crustaceans recover fast, while the ban on fishing has boosted fish stocks.
What we have here is yet another fiasco in the public management of disaster, which is becoming a global pandemic all of its own. From oil spills to Icelandic ash clouds, from flu viruses to “Frankenstein cows,” from Afghanistan’s “terror threat to our streets,” which has already killed more than 300 British servicemen, to the supposed menace of Iran’s nuclear bomb, politics has rejected its most precious obligation, to set the world’s dangers in context and react proportionately.
The imperative to exploit public fear is as old as power itself, but modern media give it a new menace. It enables leaders to suppress the dictates of reason and, however briefly, mesmerize the public into obedience. In 2003, then British prime minister Tony Blair decided to show off by sending 400 Household Cavalry in tanks to Heathrow Airport “to counter terrorism,” as a preliminary to a blitz of legislation curbing civil liberty. The image of a city under siege wiped millions off Britain’s tourism account, but Blair got his legislation.
The continued efforts of the big defense lobby to persuade the British people that they still live under the threat of a nuclear winter has become little more than high-class job protection and profit maintenance, yet it is bought hook, line and sinker by most politicians and commentators. British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne at least boldly told the defense chiefs that, if the nuclear threat to Britain is so grave, that is precisely what the existing defense budget is for.
There was no threat to Britons or the world, proportionate with the response to last spring’s ash cloud, swine flu, Osama bin Laden or, for that matter, to liquids in carry-on flight bags. Europe’s airport giants are even now wrestling with the question of whether a camembert is a “liquid.”
The great conflation of fear — often egged on by “the science” — is the result of government gladly allowing itself to go mad for a day, to raise a fear, glean a headline or win a budget rise. Obama grotesquely exaggerated the oil threat to advance his personal and party cause. He is now struggling to downplay it.
The US Travel Association is suing BP for US$500 million in promotional compensation. Why not sue the president? It was he who led the charge in disaster rhetoric, with a daily stream of negative publicity for the Gulf of Mexico, before trying, somewhat pathetically, to make up for it. He and others were surely accessories after the fact.
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