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Jesse Kornbluth Headshot

When a Preventable Tragedy Occurs, Whose Fault Is It? The Victims (Of Course)

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I live in a city where, when the planes hit the towers, guys who weren't on duty --- firemen on their days off, cops on the golf course --- jumped in their cars and raced to the World Trade Center to help. They ran up the stairs, knowing they might not get out. And they stayed longer than they should have, because they knew there were more people to save, and true to the terms of the simple code by which they lived, they died trying to save them.

Running toward trouble --- soldiers, cops and firemen are trained to do this. Parents do it as a matter of instinct. Religious people do it as an act of faith. Good citizens do it because --- well, they don't need a reason. They do it because there is something called "the right thing to do," and if you were raised by sane people and not twisted by the circumstances of your life, you know what it is, and you do it.

But here is a report of your Federal Government's response to Hurricane Katina and the flooding of New Orleans on Wednesday --- two days into the crisis:

"On Wednesday," said an editorial in The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss., "reporters listening to horrific stories of death and survival at the Biloxi Junior High School shelter looked north across Irish Hill Road and saw Air Force personnel playing basketball and performing calisthenics. Playing basketball and performing calisthenics!"

Why were these soldiers not rushing to help? Because no one told them. Because they were waiting for orders. And there were no orders. At the top of the chain of command, there was no commander.

No one in charge. How scary is that? The biggest disaster on our shores in a century, and our government's leaders were AWOL. Now we have proof: Our President's deer-in-the-headlights reaction to the 9/11 attacks was no fluke. For all his tough talk, the man simply does not know what to do when things go really, really wrong. Careless in good times, he's negligent in bad. Criminally negligent. And now it looks as if as many as 10,000 people have died because of that negligence.

You have read, by now, how the Federal Government cut funding for flood prevention work in New Orleans because the money was needed for the war in Iraq. How the head of FEMA is such an inexperienced idiot that he was fired from the International Arabian Horse Association --- not exactly a confidence-inspiring credential, even if he had been a howling success at that job --- and did not seem to know as late as yesterday that 15,000 people in the sweltering convention center were without food or water. How Dick Cheney, on seemingly permanent vacation, has decided to let George Bush play the part of the President without his help. And how Condi Rice, instead of coordinating the international response to our crisis, shopped for shoes in New York.

And we have seen this government do what it does best, which is to spin a fairytale for a nation of children. The Army finally shows up and George Bush hugs a Negro. Did everyone get the picture? Great. Now let's move on to our real problem...Social Security.

Blame? Not the time for it. Gotta pull together. But if we must blame anyone, well...why not blame the victims? They're black. They're poor. And they vote Democratic. (If you think politics has nothing to do with this, you are truly a child. Consider: If Jeb Bush were governor of Louisiana, those people would be alive now.)

They were poor, and often old, and not imaginative. They had nowhere to go, so they went nowhere. And then, when it was over, and they were left alone --- with nothing: no services, no communication, no government, no law, no food or water --- they went out and did what people do in that moment. They foraged.

Bill O'Reilly and Peggy Noonan and others on the malicious wing of the Right seem not to be able to distinguish between a tea party and a disaster. In a disaster, as Brecht said, "First feed the face, then talk right and wrong." The waters are swirling, help is absent? You go out and get diapers and water and food for your brood. And maybe --- maybe --- you pinch a flat screen TV too, in the odd, misguided belief that you will soon have a livable home again, and electricity, and a life you recognize.

Remember "The Godfather" --- "A lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than a thousand men with machine guns." Say you condemn the "looters" in New Orleans. If you do not go right on to condemn the crooks at Hallibuton and the other companies getting rich on the suffering of the Iraqi people, then it is pretty obvious who you are. Racists. Bigots. And please do us the courtesy of not denying it -- "But I like black people" --- because there really is no other explanation for your vile views.

Yes, there are hardcore thugs in New Orleans. And they have stepped into the breach and established their own brand of law. It is the law of the jungle, and it is horrible and ugly. But it is not nearly so ugly as the lawlessness that the Bush government has spawned by its laziness and ineptitute and lack of caring. When those punks cap their l0,000th victim, I'll condemn them. Until then, all the criminals we need to care about are white.

Terrible emotions run wild in us these days. Anger. Shame. Disbelief. Hopelessness. Those are hard emotions to deal with. And we have been well-trained by the Bush spinners always to blame the victims --- to put responsibility on people too dazed or ignorant to take responsibility for themselves. For five years, these guys have gotten away with it. They're good at it. And it's hard for even the best of their opponents to pull the curtain back and show you how they make their cheap magic. And then it is very very hard for Americans to consider a scary thought --- our government lies to us, and lies consistently.

The government will tell whatever tales it can to distract us. But don't, for a minute, think that the right wing's tough guys would behave any better than the New Orleans looters if their kids were hungry and thirsty and hurting. Trust me on this: Once these soft white pundits stopped bawling, they'd cheerfully blow your brains out with their hunting rifles if you stood between them and a week's supply of Poland Spring.

Crises are supposed to bring out the best in people? Then let these filthy racists shut their mouths so that those who want to help can get on with it.