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Not Just N.O. Needs Rebuilding

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So now, horribly, we know what it takes to stir disgust and outrage directed at the federal government, in the hearts of the corporate press corps. It takes a catastrophe of biblical proportions unfolding right before their eyes, right here in America, right in front of their cameras and camera crews, amid the stench of rotting corpses and a heaving mass of literally thousands of sick and dying.

Katrina’s aftermath has exposed the ‘most powerful country in the world’ as literally powerless to help thousands of its most visible citizens in dire, immediate need. This monstrous failure could literally be paradigm-shifting in its effect on the public consciousness.

The power of this story is evident in the accounts from on-location cable correspondents, who usually have no difficulty avoiding serious criticism of the powerful in any situation. But in New Orleans yesterday, several of them could not.

Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera and Shepard Smith, for instance, veered wildly off script while reporting from the watery grave New Orleans has become. It took only a few hours holed up in the Superdome to provoke outrage in both of them?not only at the inhuman conditions inside the Louisiana Superdome, where the dead lay rotting next to the living, but that ‘hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of survivors were being denied exit. Have we forgotten already that these people were encouraged to head for the Superdome by authorities? How on earth could they be denied the right to leave an open cesspool?

Fox was ready, though. Earlier in the evening there was Bill O’Reilly, vile apologist for the administration, safely tucked in his quiet studio, poised on the ‘kill’ button, ready to unceremoniously cut off Smith or Rivera before the humanity of their reporting infected viewers with a genuine sense of concern for the suffering. In a flash they were gone, without the usual grateful sendoff. And then later on, with Smith describing the unspeakable conditions in the Superdome, the repugnant Sean Hannity called for ‘perspective’, but Smith, looking murderous, would not back down: “This is perspective!”

Other broadcasters are finding that outrage is playing well, too, whether it’s Ted Koppel on ABC or the typically-smirking Aaron Brown on MSNBC. We should take note of the reasons this is happening, when so many other tragedies failed to produce seemingly spontaneous ejaculation of on-air disgust and outrage.

Unlike the 9/11 tragedy, which unfolded in a way that tended to draw stark lines between survivors and victims, in the aftermath of Katrina this afternoon’s survivors might easily become this evening’s victims. The catastrophe is still developing, while the 9/11 attacks hit with a ferocity that, mercifully, passed relatively quickly in media-time. There were very few survivors from the collapse of the towers, and the environmental crises that followed were slow to develop and poorly covered by the press. Because the victims of 9/11 either died immediately that morning, or got sick offstage from Ground Zero in the weeks to follow, the attacks were not seen as a developing story even though thousands developed serious ailments in the toxic conditions of Ground Zero that fall and winter.

Another important element helping to direct disgust and outrage at authorities is the inability of the press to take distance from the suffering of those around them, as they are able to do in virtually every other disaster area they visit. There is no luxury hotel for them to retreat to in New Orleans, no media hospitality area or secure facility to separate them very long from the suffering. Further, the people who are literally dying by degrees around them speak the same language they do. Once one’s humanity is triggered, it becomes harder and harder to stay on message. Even Adolh Eichmann was said to have been appalled upon touring the concentration camps.

Other first-hand accounts from New Orleans show us that the state-sponsored outrages are everywhere. Reports like this one, filed Friday afternoon by Jordan Flaherty of leftturn.org, convey the government’s full-spectrum disrespect for the survivors:

In the refugee camp I just left, on the I-10 freeway near Causeway, thousands of people (at least 90% black and poor) stood and squatted in mud and trash behind metal barricades, under an unforgiving sun, with heavily armed soldiers standing guard over them. When a bus would come through, it would stop at a random spot, state police would open a gap in one of the barricades, and people would rush for the bus, with no information given about where the bus was going. Once inside (we were told) evacuees would be told where the bus was taking them – Baton Rouge, Houston, Arkansas, Dallas, or other locations. I was told that if you boarded a bus bound for Arkansas (for example), even people with family and a place to stay in Baton Rouge would not be allowed to get out of the bus as it passed through Baton Rouge. You had no choice but to go to the shelter in Arkansas. If you had people willing to come to New Orleans to pick you up, they could not come within 17 miles of the camp.

I traveled throughout the camp and spoke to Red Cross workers, Salvation Army workers, National Guard, and state police, and although they were friendly, no one could give me any details on when buses would arrive, how many, where they would go to, or any other information.

In their time of greatest need, the survivors are treated as prisoners, not as citizens needing special care. We have already failed them, as we failed the thousands who are dead and the dozens or hundreds or however many more who will die in the tragedy’s second week.

Of all the legacies of Katrina, this may be the most damning. The reality is before us. In many ways, the US is a failed state. Venerable historian Peter Dale Scott pointed this out recently before C-SPAN’s cameras at the Emergency Truth Convergence in Washington DC, as did Dan La Botz in a recent, devastating essay. La Botz does not mince words about the situation we are in.

Reform is not the answer. Reform is what you do to make something work. Do we want to make the system we have work? Well, think about who it works for. It works for the corporations, the military, the wealthy, the politicians. It does not work for the people of the United States at large, certainly not for working people and the poor. Above all it does not work for black people.

The press corps will go back to sleep if we let it. They will leave New Orleans, and remember that they have careers to nurture and appearances to keep up. The pull of comfortable society is very powerful. They’ll stop making waves. And reptiles like O’Reilly and Hannity who never left the studio will regain their balance, and others in time will move on. We should not be na?ve, either?the real power to change the corporate press is not vested in on-the-scene correspondents or sympathetic studio personalities. Their outrage at the official response to Katrina cannot–by itself–undo the structures supporting media silence on real government accountability. A true remedy would address the entire corporate media apparatus(more on that in a moment).

While the scope of the tragedy in New Orleans grows, its immediacy will make comparisons to past government-sponsored failures seem inappropriate, and that’s understandable. But when enough time has passed, perhaps this colossal failure will enable the public to entertain the similarities between the Administration’s failure to respond to Katrina, and its orchestrated failure?represented by the omissions and distortions of the 9/11 Commission Report– to answer the questions gnawing at victims’ family members and millions of other Americans for years now about the true scope of the attacks. The victims of Katrina deserved better, and likely thousands have died because of a cataclysmic failure to respond in time. There should be a full investigation and a complete accounting of the tragedy with consequences for failure and malfeasance. To our great detriment, that is exactly what has thus far been denied all citizens regarding the aftermath of September 11.

The truth stares us in the face: our government cannot be reformed into acting on behalf of its citizens’ interests. It cannot be reformed into offering truth and accountability. As La Botz says:

The alternative to reform is reconstruction. Sometimes you rehab. Sometimes you have to tear down and start over, build better. We need to start over. We need to start now.

We need a new radical political movement to do it, one prepared to reject reform for the total reconstruction of our society. A real reconstruction of our society would start with the poor people of New Orleans, with their needs. They and all who are like them should come first. If we make a society where they can live and thrive, then we all will.

Any such society would not, could not, have a corporate media that dominates. That should be obvious. We simply cannot entrust the dissemination of information to corporations whose primary interest is in turning a buck.

La Botz’s prescription, perhaps still too radical for mainstream consumption at present, won’t look so marginal as the scale of this tragedy grows. Think about it: as New Orleans less and less populated, it will become more and more militarized. There must be hundreds if not thousands of people still in New Orleans, holed up in their houses or apartments, thirsty, starving, clinging to like and scared to death. Think they have faith in the federal authorities after this week? Who’s going to ‘rescue’ them, the military? How will these survivors be treated? Will they be shot like dogs if they resist being evacuated? Think I’m kidding? Here’s a quote from Army Times, dated September 2:

“This place is going to look like Little Somalia,” Brig. Gen. Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force told Army Times Friday as hundreds of armed troops under his charge prepared to launch a massive citywide security mission from a staging area outside the Louisiana Superdome. “We’re going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.”

How can this be America?

The horror of Katrina’s aftermath, even more than 9/11, may prove to be a monumental political turning point. We must work to ensure that, unlike with 9/11, it’s a turn for the better. Getting the truth out, both about the scale and disproportionate impact of this tragedy as well as the facts about 9/11 cover-up, has never been more important. The dead and dying in the South, and the dead in New York demand it.

–Bryan Sacks