Politics & Policy

A National Disgrace

Government in catastrophe.

The disaster of New Orleans, unspooling minute by minute on our TV screens, has been wrenching–in one particular way even more gut-twisting than Sept. 11.

You could watch the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and feel horrified at the sheer violence and destruction of it; angry at the murderous evil of Mohammed Atta and the other hijackers; heartbroken at the awful suffering and loss. But there wasn’t any cause to feel embarrassed and ashamed.

Those are the emotions evoked by sights of the massive lawlessness in New Orleans in the days after the storm and the inability of anyone to stop it. Katrina unleashed a catastrophe of nearly unimaginable proportions, confronting government at all levels with enormous challenges. That the reaction to the hurricane initially seemed uneven and slow is understandable, but even allowing for the hellish circumstances, the breakdown in civil order has been stunning.

Without order, which government exists to protect, nothing else is possible. Not even rescue operations, as New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has learned. On Wednesday night, as the city descended into an urban dystopia straight out of the 1981 film Escape From New York, he had to command nearly all the city’s 1,500 police officers to focus on reestablishing law and order instead of saving endangered people.

Everyone understands desperate people getting food or water by any means possible. Plundering tennis shoes and TVs, as a small thuggish minority has done, is another matter. And the problem is that there is no such thing as a little chaos. Once a climate of disorder is set, it has a logic of its own. First, it was stealing tennis shoes, then it was taking potshots at a helicopter arriving to evacuate people from the Superdome. Goons stole a bus from a nursing home and threatened its residents. Rescue workers report that rocks and bottles have been thrown at them and shots fired their way.

Unfortunately, the urban revival that had swept much of the country mostly left New Orleans behind. The atmosphere of lawfulness that stood New York City in good stead after 9/11 and during the 2003 blackout–although those were much less far-reaching disasters–was never established. The city never had a Rudy Giuliani. Even as murder rates continued to decline in other cities in recent years, the murder rate in New Orleans crept up. The police were plagued by allegations of corruption and brutality, and, according to the Associated Press, only had “3.14 officers per 1,000 residents–less than half the rate in Washington, D.C.”

Law enforcement, of course, is primarily a state and local responsibility, but in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, people look to the federal government and the president to solve any problem on their TV screens. Already the question is being asked if the feds could have jumped in sooner (the National Guard is now arriving in force). If President Bush pays a political price for the images of lawlessness that have played out in New Orleans, it will be the second time looting has hurt his cause.

The other, of course, was in Baghdad in 2003. It is a matter of consensus now that the rip-the-place-apart looting in the initial days after the fall of Saddam Hussein set the occupation off on the wrong foot. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained the looting away at the time as the natural exuberance of a newly liberated people. One wonders: Has anyone in the administration read their Hobbes? Or does he not make the “compassionate conservative” reading list?

New Orleans has provided a corrosive lesson about government. At all levels, government is overbearing and nagging, paying for people’s prescription drugs and telling us whether we can smoke in restaurants or not. But when it comes to its most elemental task of maintaining order and protecting property, it might not be up to the task when it is needed most.

Keep that in mind and buy a gun, just in case.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c) 2005 King Features Syndicate

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