"Incompetence is bad enough; not taking responsibility for it is shameful. Blaming it on others is a national disgrace." -- Minnesota Star-Tribune
"Who is going to say 'stop'? Who's going to stand up and say that these people must be prevented from doing any more damage? ...It's long past time for those who know better, those in both parties, to declare the skipper incompetent and take charge. Leave him muttering and raging alone in his office, fidgeting with his ball bearings and accusing those around him of disloyalty. The time has come. The standard exceeded. The evidence is piled high around us." -- Stephen Pizzo
After extensive interviews with local residents, relief workers, community activists, urban planners, and even artists in New Orleans, Nation writers Mike Davis and Anthony Fontenot compile a list of 25 questions they have about what many locals are terming "the murder of New Orleans." According to Davis and Fontenot, "Where outsiders see simple 'incompetence' or 'failure of leadership,' locals are more inclined to discern deliberate design and planned neglect -- the murder, not the accidental death, of a great city." The questions should be equally uncomfortable for federal, state, and local officials.
"This is a national emergency," said Terry Ebbert, head of homeland security for New Orleans. "This is a national disgrace. FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can't bail out the city of New Orleans." Democratic congressman Harold Ford, Jr, said he was struck by Bush's "cavalier attitude toward the plight of poor people across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama." The Bush administration's response? Accusing critics of "playing politics" and playing some sort of "blame game" (see above).
Democrat Howard Dean, speaking on Tuesday the 6th: "Based on today's reports, it seems clear that President Bush's visit today is just another callous political move crafted by Karl Rove. It's just appalling to see how quickly President Bush and Karl Rove have mobilized a political strategy in their own defense, but simply failed to mobilize a swift response to either keep the people in the Gulf Coast region safe in the first place or aid the victims in the aftermath of the storm. Thousands of people have lost their lives. Our nation faces difficult times as we address the painful aftermath of Katrina, yet President Bush is worried about shifting blame and passing the buck? Shouldn't he be worried about restoring stability, plans to evacuate survivors, and ensuring that our communities have the resources they need to help the victims of this tragedy rebuild their lives? Now is a time for leadership not partisanship. This is one failure we will not allow Rove and the GOP attack machine to spin away with their usual barrage of photo-ops, misinformation, smear campaigns and press conferences."
House Democrat Nancy Pelosi, before laying out chapter and verse about the failures of the Bush administration to help the region prepare for the inevitable strike: "The people of the Gulf Coast region were struck by two disasters -- first the Hurricane, and then the failure of the federal government in their time of great need. This is not just a natural disaster; this is a failure of lack of preparedness. It's a natural disaster, but man-made mistakes have made matters much worse, having lost many more lives. Instead of unconscionably blaming others, President Bush must take charge and take responsibility, and must get it right, and that is my concern and the message that I will bring to the President: 'Mr. President, you should have taken charge and you should have taken responsibility.'" Republican congresswoman Susan Collins says carefully, "Governments at all levels failed." As for myself? I say it's not laying blame, "Mr. President," and it's not a game. It's called accepting responsibility.
On Sunday, September 4, Democratic senator Mary Landrieu, disgusted with the lackadaisical and unfeeling response she has received from the White House, along with its unrelenting attempts to dodge the blame for its own malfeasance, said testily, "If one person criticizes them [local officials] or says one more thing, including the president of the United States, he will hear from me. One more word about it after this show airs and I might likely have to punch him. Literally." On Wednesday, September 7, Landrieu responded to the administration's incredible claim that no one could have anticipated the destruction of New Orleans's levees by snapping, "Everybody anticipated the breach of the levee, Mr. President." She noted that even the Saturday Night Live figure "Mr. Bill" had made numerous public service announcements about the coast's erosion problems before the storm hit. "How can it be that Mr. Bill was better informed than Mr. Bush?" she asked.
A writer for The Black Commentator pens an open letter to "the man sitting behind me at La Paz today, in Nashville, at lunchtime, with the Brooks Brothers shirt." Tom Wise, the writer, notes in part, "You blessed your chimichanga in the name of Jesus Christ, and then proceeded to spend the better part of your meal -- and mine, since I was too near your table to avoid hearing every word -- morally scolding the people of that devastated city, heaping scorn on them for not heeding the warnings to leave before disaster struck. Then you attacked them -- all of them, without distinction it seemed -- for the behavior of a relative handful: those who have looted items like guns, or big screen TVs. ...[Your companion] then added that police should shoot the looters, and should have done so from the beginning, so as to send a message to the rest that theft would not be tolerated. You, who had just thanked Jesus for your chips and guacamole, said you agreed. They should be shot. Praise the Lord. Your God is one with whom I am not familiar. Two thoughts. First, it is a very fortunate thing for you, and likely for me, that my two young children were with me as I sat there, choking back fish tacos and my own seething rage, listening to you pontificate about sh*t you know nothing about.
"...God doesn't feed you, and it isn't God that kept me from turning around and beating your lily white privileged *ss today either. ...And if God is even half as tired as I am of having to listen to self-righteous b*stards like you blame the victims of this nightmare for their fate, then you had best eat slowly from this point forward. ...I know you. I see people like you all the time, in airports, in business suits, on their lunch breaks. People who will take advantage of any opportunity to ratify and reify their pre-existing prejudices towards the poor, towards black folks. You see the same three video loops of the same dozen or so looters on Fox News and you conclude that poor black people are crazy, immoral, criminal. You, or others quite a bit like you, are the ones posting messages on chat room boards, calling looters sub-human 'vermin,' 'scum,' or 'cockroaches.' I heard you use the word 'animals' three times today: you and that woman across from you.... What was it you said as you scooped the last bite of black beans and rice into your eager mouth? Like zoo animals? Yes, I think that was it. Well Chuck, it's a free country, and so you certainly have the right I suppose to continue lecturing the poor, in between checking your Blackberry and dropping the kids off at soccer practice. If you want to believe that the poor of New Orleans are immoral and greedy, and unworthy of support at a time like this -- or somehow more in need of your scolding than whatever donation you might make to a relief fund -- so be it. But let's leave God out of it, shall we? All of it. Your God is one with whom I am not familiar, and I'd prefer to keep it that way."
Former Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal writes, "Bush's America is gone with the wind. It lasted just short of four years, from Sept. 11, 2001, to Aug. 29, 2005. The devastation of New Orleans was the watery equivalent of a dirty bomb, but Hurricane Katrina approached the homeland with advance warnings, scientific anticipation and a personal briefing of the president by the director of the National Hurricane Center, alerting him about a possible breaching of the levees. It was as predictable as though Osama bin Laden had phoned in every detail to the television networks. No future terrorist attack would or could be as completely foreseen as Katrina. Bush's entire presidency and reelection campaign were organized around one master idea: He stood as the protector and savior of the American people under siege. On this mystique he built his persona as a decisive man of conviction and action. In the 2004 election, a critical mass of voters believed that because of his unabashed patriotism and unembarrassed religiosity he would do more to protect the country. They also believed that his fervor must be strength. The criticism of Bush that he was overzealous, simplistic and single-minded only served to reinforce his image. The deepest wound is not that he was incapable of defending the country but that he has shown he lacks the will to do so. In Bush's own evangelical language, he revealed his heart."
Blumenthal continues, "He responded to the hurricane initially by ignoring it. His own aides argued among themselves over which one of them would risk a presidential tongue-lashing by broaching the subject to him. Finally, three days after landfall, he bestirred himself to take part in some photo-ops and, more importantly, take the lead in trying to shift the blame to the local and state governments for the horrifically inadequate response. Finally, Blumenthal writes, "On Tuesday, all else having failed, he tried a novel tactic to deflect the 'blame game,' as he called it. 'To the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right,' he declared, 'I take responsibility.' 'Extent' was the loophole allowing his magnanimity to be bestowed on the distant abstraction of government." Blumenthal concludes, "The rest of the Bush presidency will consist of his strained efforts to cobble his myth together again while others cope with the consequences of his damage. The hurricane has tossed and turned the country but will not deposit it on firm ground for at least the three and half years remaining of the ruined Bush presidency."
An editorial in the Minnesota Star-Tribune says bluntly, "If the human misery that followed Hurricane Katrina has been shocking and painful, the federal government's shifting explanations for its needless severity have been utterly shameful." The editorial calls the Bush efforts to shift the blame away from FEMA and other federal officials, and onto state and local government, "an appalling use of political tactics in the highly inappropriate realm of human suffering and pain, of lives saved and lives lost." The federal government -- the Bush administration -- should have taken responsibility and been held accountable immediately. "Instead, the White House organized a PR effort directed by political adviser Karl Rove, master of political attack-machine tactics," the paper writes.
"The New York Times reported Monday that the administration, alarmed at the potential political fallout of its poor performance, regrouped over the weekend and mapped out its strategy. The plan has rolled out exactly as the Times' report said it would: Administration officials appearing in public have downplayed the need to quickly assess failures, and have tried instead to discuss what's being done now. To the extent that they -- and allies who appear or write in their stead -- do discuss failures, it is to point the finger at local and state officials or 'bureaucrats.' Officials doing just that include Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, whose accountability is right up there with FEMA director Michael Brown's. These tactics are beyond outrageous. No state, no locality can take the lead in dealing with an emergency like Katrina. That's why FEMA was created. That is why Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco declared a state of emergency on Friday, Aug. 26, when Katrina was a Category 2 hurricane. It is why the Gulf Coast states requested help from the Pentagon that same day. It is why the next day, as Katrina was upgraded to Category 3, Blanco asked President Bush to declare a federal state of emergency in Louisiana. It was declared. Thus FEMA had full authority and responsibility from the White House 'to identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency.'" This did not happen. The editorial concludes, "Exactly what went wrong, in both the planning and the response, must be assessed in short order. The ability of the United States to prepare for and respond to disaster -- whatever the origin -- is vital to its security. No less, it is critical to America's ability to honor its shared values, which include attending to the poor, the sick, the vulnerable -- the very people who suffered most from the government's incompetence last week. Yet the White House delays the reckoning while pointing fingers at others. Incompetence is bad enough; not taking responsibility for it is shameful. Blaming it on others is a national disgrace."
Liberal commentator Joe Conason marks the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by writing, "Now catastrophe has befallen another American city, with horrors and losses that may surpass the toppling of the twin towers. And while many people in New Orleans have shown themselves to be brave, generous and decent, this season's disaster has instilled more dread than pride, more anger than unity. Why is the mood so different now? At every level, the vacuum of leadership was appalling, but especially among the national leaders to whom all Americans look at a time of catastrophic peril. As rising waters sank the city, summer vacations in Texas and Wyoming, and shoe shopping on Fifth Avenue, appeared to take priority over the suffering on the Gulf Coast. Four years after 9/11, we know much more than we knew then about the arrogance, dishonesty, recklessness and incompetence of a national government that was never worthy of its power." After reminding us of how cynically the administration played the "9/11 card" at every opportunity to shore up its power base, label Democrats who wanted to cooperate with Bush in the war on terror as traitors, and eke out electoral victories in 2004 and 2006, Conason writes, "More recently, we have discovered how they failed to act on an ominous report from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, just weeks before 9/11, that pointed to the grave likelihood of a terrorist attack on New York City -- and of a deadly hurricane destroying New Orleans. And we can have no doubt now, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, that critical agencies of the United States government are staffed by patronage hacks unable to fulfill the most basic responsibilities of the modern state. The outstanding example, of course, is Michael D. Brown -- apparently known as 'Brownie' to the admiring president -- the FEMA chief whose resume contains nothing to recommend him to one of the most critical positions in government, although he had amply padded it with unearned honors and bogus titles. ...In his pathetic insufficiency, Brown evidently was not alone at FEMA. The deputies and acting deputies and various other high-ranking pork-choppers -- many of whom had landed at the agency from positions with the Bush-Cheney campaign -- showed up with no experience in the hard work of saving lives and restoring communities."
"But the FEMA phonies stand as symbols of far broader trouble in the Bush administration. When the Republicans first took over in 2001, and for many months thereafter, they assured us that they were the 'grown-ups,' and that they were 'in charge.' After 9/11, their flacks returned to this self-congratulatory theme, boasting that all Americans felt more secure and protected by Bush than they would if Al Gore were in the Oval Office. Their standard of accountability is to award the nation's highest decoration for public service to George Tenet and Jerry Bremer, as if nobody had noticed their notorious failures. Pretenders such as these cannot extricate us from a debilitating war, nor can they rebuild the nation they destroyed; they have no idea how to allocate resources against terrorism, nor how to prepare for the disasters that will surely come. What the Republicans in power can do is set up photo ops, repeat spin points, concoct hollow slogans about 'compassionate conservatism,' and sidestep responsibility by whining about 'the blame game.'"
"On this anniversary, surrounded by the wreckage of four years of disastrously bad government, we must confront a profoundly disturbing reality. The performance of George W. Bush as president has proved to be far worse than even his most alienated critics could have predicted. His administration is far less concerned with our security than with its own self-serving ideology and its petty abuses of office. Four years ago, as we contemplated potential threats from the enemies of civilization, it was impossible to conceive of the vast damage that our own government would inflict upon America before those enemies could strike again. The danger from the perpetrators of 9/11 has not abated, and suddenly we know how vulnerable we remain -- because the federal officials who have sworn to defend us, beginning with the president, have neither the character nor the competence to fulfill that oath."
OpEd News's Rob Kall makes an impassioned plea for resistance to the Bush efforts to use the disaster to further dismantle American civil liberties. "Sinclair Lewis's book, It Can't Happen Here,...describes how a hayseed good ol' boy southerner managed by treacherous handlers becomes president. They tear apart one after another American institution -- schools, health care, while at the same time appointing politically loyal incompetents with no experience to manage all aspects of US government and other bureaucracies. The media are totally controlled, with uncooperative editors and reporters jailed or killed. Lewis describes how towns and cities become militarized, how people are sent to jail without trials, or with fixed trials by crooked, corrupt judges appointed by the corrupt president and his cronies. Gun toting militias terrorize the nation at a local level, with the redneck morons handed leadership roles in every community, with the right to summarily execute people who say the wrong thing. Resistors are threatened with imprisonment or death if they don't go public supporting the party line. Lewis wrote his book in 1937, having see Hitler's rise to power.
Kall continues, "...[W]e are much further along the dangerous road that Sinclair Lewis created as a fiction. The thought of armed, privately paid mercenaries roaming the streets of a major American city, a city filled with Democrats, with poor, helpless African Americans and the most independent, insistent upon being self-sufficient Americans is horrifying. These guns for hired are reportedly authorized to not only make arrests but also to use 'lethal force.' We know that when hundreds of victims of the levee floods -- New Orleans residents and tourists -- tried to cross a bridge to safety, police officers from Gretna, in the Jefferson Parish, fired over their heads and forced them back into the flood ravaged, toxic water deluged city. An American city is under military rule, with citizens being dragged and handcuffed out of their homes, helpless, frail old women thrown around, manhandled, captured and thrown into transport trucks. FEMA has created 'detainment camps' which people are not allowed to leave, where they get two meals a day, are not allowed to cook, can't leave to go to church.... This can not be. This must not be allowed. We must do all we can to end this. President Bush has asked the nation to hold a vigil next Friday. And we must hold one, but not quietly in our churches, temples and mosques. We must go to the streets, raise our voices and tell these betrayers of democracy that it's over, that they can't do this. Tell your congregations you don't want to sit in a building a passively allow this to happen. Wake up your church, your synagogue, temple or mosque and lead them to a local demonstration -- a vigil that truly, spiritually supports the victims of both Hurricane Katrina and the Levee Flood Bush's incompetent appointees and stupid funding withdrawals caused. America is at risk. You can no longer just read about it. You must do something today, not just donating money or goods to the victims in Mississippi and Louisiana. YOU are a victim of this disaster and you have to ask yourself what you're going to do today, what you did last week, what you will do next week to save the USA. ...Send your legislators this message. Write to your newspapers. Tell them to end the martial law, the mercenaries and detainment camps."
Chicago Tribune columnist Dawn Turner Trice writes of the ugly racial truths revealed by many reactions and responses to the Katrina disaster. "The hurricane indeed has shed a light," she writes. "The spin masters in the Bush administration have done a glowing job over the last several years of pretending that America has achieved a colorblind, class-blind society. Look around you, they say. Look at Condi and Alberto. Colin and Clarence. All credits to their race. What inequities? What ghettos? What barrios? For some time now, the underclass has been kept off camera, rendered invisible, its voices muted. But now that the hurricane has reminded us that, there are Americans too impoverished to leave their community even when a great storm is hurtling toward them, it's not surprising that many are shocked by it. ...Maybe someone could explain to Mrs. Bush that being huddled in a stadium not knowing where other family members are and uncertain about the future does not translate into an experience that's 'working out well for them.' Maybe someone could explain to the Baton Rouge congressman why now isn't the time to be flip about cleaning up public housing and God should be left out of this. No, I'm not mad at members of the elite. They're merely saying aloud what they've been thinking. It just shows us that 'the line' and 'the spin' can go only so far before -- thank heavens -- the spool eventually runs out."
Media expert Simon Dumenco writes in September 12's Ad Age magazine that the Bush response to Katrina proves what many have been saying all along: that in Bush's world, public relations equals action. They put far more effort into manipulating the message and crafting the image than they do actually dealing with a real-world situation. Dumenico writes, "When George Bush made his first, belated stop in New Orleans, touching down at the city's airport, he actually viewed his visit as an appropriate occasion for a little light comedy. Here's the official White House transcript: 'I believe that the great city of New Orleans will rise again and be a greater city of New Orleans. (Applause.) I believe the town where I used to come, from Houston, Texas, to enjoy myself -- occasionally too much (Laughter.) -- will be that very same town, that it will be a better place to come to. That's what I believe. I believe the great state of Louisiana will get its feet back and become a vital contributor to the country.' It was, of course, just the latest highlight in his career as chief marketing officer for the Rove/Cheney/Rumsfeld neo-con agenda. It's a job that entails always sticking to a breezy, upbeat storyline. It's no surprise that Bush took this PR-trumps-action tack for Katrina. For much of his five years in office, he's seen that putting a faux-cheerful, faux-hopeful spin on even the worst calamities (see also: the war in Iraq) meant that a cheerful, hopeful spin would automatically float to the top of the memepool, at least momentarily. If he kept repeating these faux-cheerful, faux-hopeful things ad nauseum, he'd have a great shot of at least partially obscuring all the actual rotting nastiness lurking below the surface." Dumenco calls FEMA's "glacial response" "murderous" and says it is an outrage that FEMA's PR-crafted response to the thousands of dead and dying in New Orleans was merely to ban media coverage of the dead. If the media doesn't show them to us, we won't know they're there, right? He writes, "That's where our heads have been in this country, and that's where the president's head is: PR is considered action, while actual action is an afterthought. ...Still, all he knew to do was keep up the PR talk, as if leadership were made up solely of spin as opposed to, say, actually leading."
"The federal government's response to what happened in New Orleans is a national disgrace, and the buck stops with President Bush. ...The tsunami victims received more help than our own countrymen were getting. Shame on the Bush administration for failing to live up to its obligations to the people of this country." -- Noah Bender
George Lakoff and John Halpin frame the response to Katrina in overarching form: "Hurricane Katrina exposed far more than rank incompetence and negligence by Bush administration officials. It showed Americans, in full force, the intellectual bankruptcy of modern conservatism. With millions of Americans displaced in the hurricane's aftermath, and thousands needlessly injured or dead, the nation witnessed the pillars of modern conservative ideology -- less government, lower taxes, a strong defense -- crumble. Conservatives have lectured Americans for three decades about the evils of government and the need for a stronger nation. Turns out, the biggest threat to America's future and security is the complete dominance of government by a conservative ideology incapable of understanding and addressing our greatest needs." Naturally, many conservatives are rushing to reframe the disaster to "prove" that their own ideology, the cause of so much devastation, suffering, and death, was actually correct all along. Read the article linked above for more details than you may wish to stomach. Lakoff and Halpin give us a set of bullet points to guide our counter-arguments (read the article for details about each one)
It doesn't take a genius, or a spin doctor, to put each one of these points in context of Katrina and the government's response.
Even conservatives are criticizing Bush: a remarkable turn, considering how rigidly loyal most conservatives have been towards Bush in the past. One right-wing commentator, Jeff Crouere, writes, "In recent days, defenders of the Bush administration have been trying to shift blame to Democrats like Governor Kathleen Blanco, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard. But, in the view of this conservative Republican, all three of these individuals have acted admirably and have been working literally 24 hours a day since well before the hurricane hit. ...On his desk at the White House, President Harry Truman had a sign that read 'The buck stops here.' In a similar vein, President Bush should accept responsibility for these deadly foul-ups and fire the officials who failed." The Cato Institute's Doug Bandow writes, "Is Bush a serious person? ...Indeed, in the midst of the firestorm of criticism, including by members of his own party, the president allowed that 'the results are not acceptable.' But no one has been held accountable for anything. The administration set this pattern long ago: It is constantly surprised and never accountable."
Here's the text of an e-mail my wife sent to Bush, Cheney, and others involved in this horrific event on Monday, September 5:
Mr. Bush, I hold you and FEMA personally responsible for the death and despair of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. I am shocked and sickened by your lack of action and your total disregard for the people of New Orleans. You have wreaked more havoc and brought more sorrow to this country than any President in history. You and your people are destroying the very foundation of our society. I would ask that both you and Vice President Cheney resign and take all your cabinet members with you. I can only hope that all of you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for the crimes against humanity that you have committed against the people of this country and all over the world.
Please, go away and leave us to try and repair the horrific damage that you and yours have done to this nation. You are not an agent of G-d. You care nothing for the people of this country. Resign, Mr. Bush, or the good people of this country will rise up and see you impeached and prosecuted for the criminal that you are and for the evil that you have done. May G-d have mercy on you for He is the only one who will.