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Who Were You When the Lights Went Out?

From every second or third house came the voices of people buried and abandoned, who invariably screamed, with formal politeness, “Tasukete kure! Help, if you please!”

—John Hersey, Hiroshima

We all wonder what will happen when the lights go out and never come back on. When hard drives melt and cell phones die, and the car runs out of gas. All at once.

They found out in New Orleans — and so did the rest of us who were voyeurs to the addictive horror that was Katrina and its aftermath. The Crescent City became the Super Bowl of disasters and we had skybox seats. Last week we learned all about the mechanics of collapse, vicariously witnessing another city’s stilled dialysis machines and darkened streets, imagining a nightmare where a call for help can only carry as far as a scream. But we also discovered what really lurks at the bottom of our fears — the suspicion that, once unplugged, our technological civilization will quickly crumble and be replaced by what we like to call “the law of the jungle.”

Even that phrase, though, implies some minimal code of conduct, however vague and harsh, and even this was ignored in New Orleans. We can understand the looting and forgive the arson, perhaps, but how, we wonder, can people shoot at rescue helicopters evacuating hospital patients? And what about the reports of sexual assaults occurring within the Superdome’s shadows? Where is the gain, where is the sense — the jungle logic?

This is not something that can be blamed on FEMA. Being poor — black or white — does not force people to feed on the weak during emergencies. And the city went Lord of the Flies almost immediately — the chaotic violence didn’t simmer for weeks, it erupted spontaneously. It’s too soon to know exactly why this happened. Perhaps the Superdome and Convention Center were infiltrated by criminals, perhaps events just threw the vulnerable together with the homicidal. The majority of stranded citizens clearly did not participate in these crimes, but enough did to make 200 cops flee their jobs and to require thousands upon thousands of heavily armed National Guardsmen to restore order.

Much has been said about the resemblance of New Orleans to Third World countries like Haiti — most obviously because of the shared tropical climate and the black makeup of their populations. Our reply has been to say that the rest of the world is no better than us, when it’s the opposite — we’re no better than the rest of the world. Or, perhaps, we’re worse. When reading John Hersey’s account of the Hiroshima bombing, one is struck by the selfless and almost elegant suffering endured by the Japanese, who, with only great social discomfort (and scorched bodies) brought themselves to cry out for help in the city’s radioactive debris.

Americans, however, expect and demand immediate roadside assistance when disaster strikes and, apparently, a disturbing number of them will go berserk when they don’t get it. On the other hand, if Americans were beginning to suspect that the federal government is not in the business of protecting them, they had the matter unambiguously clarified last week. We now know the compassionate conservatives running the country didn’t simply aggravate New Orleans’ tragedy but actively precipitated it by sabotaging any projects designed to improve the city’s infrastructure against hurricane and flood. Bush and his fellow Republicans, in fact, have done more than their own share of pillaging over the past five years, though theirs has been a different kind of looting and violence, a nonstop spree of corporate tax breaks, budget cuts and environmental havoc that have ripped open the safety net many Americans have relied upon since the New Deal.

For many of us, Katrina’s only lessons will be the need to buy guns and lots of batteries, and to keep our emergency food and water stored in attics instead of basements. But New Orleans is an omen, the vision of a country that turns its back on the elderly, the sick and the poor. We’ve glimpsed a tomorrow in which it’s every man for himself, even when the lights are on. The jungle. Today that image of the Superdome’s dead grandmother, shrouded by a blanket as she sat abandoned in her wheelchair, is as American an icon as Norman Rockwell’s illustration of a black girl being escorted to school by federal marshals. If anything, the forgotten granny in the wheelchair could very well be that little girl, or at least the ideal of social justice we believed in so long ago. What began last week as a natural disaster has become a national disgrace.


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