Monday, September 05, 2005

And So, at Last...

...the truth comes out.

FEMA was turning people away because they were waiting until "the national guard has secured the city". Firefighters, relief supplies, aid workers, NGOs, everybody was kept out until the city was "secured".

This is ludicrous.

It also makes sense.

It's not about the oil supplies, however; it's about (oddly enough) military and strategic culture. FEMA operates under the aegis of the DHS, and the DHS exists because of the "war on terror"; the creation of an administration that sees everything through the lens of warfare.

How deeply the DoD is tied to the DHS is indicated by (among other things) the Democratic Underground post that I saw in this Daily Kos comment, which had aid workers blocked by FEMA people saying that "it was all up to the DoD". Why defer? What does DoD have to do with this? DoD (through the national guard) may be the only ones able to say whether or not the situation on the ground is "secure", but it's DHS and FEMA that (at least theoretically) get to determine whether or not people can go in. It's DHS and FEMA that have control over what kind of risk they're willing to take, and yet they deferred to DoD.

DoD is a military organization. Their chief concern is not the number of casualties (except of their own personnel), but ensuring that security and order are preserved, especially such security is necessary for the national interest. (Hence the Ministry of Oil fiasco in Iraq.)

DHS's priorities should be different, especially in this kind of situation, but they aren't. The chief (and, let's be honest, practically only) priority in NO was keeping order, and letting in dozens of different aid organizations would threaten that. Plus, DoD is notoriously averse to casualties, and that carrying over to DHS would leave FEMA obsessed with the fear that the "insurgents" would hurt aid workers.

The aid workers were willing to accept the risk; the hand-me-down military culture would not let them take that risk. "Civilians" are to be kept out of a conflict zone, period. New Orleans was not a conflict zone on Tuesday, and probably would not have become one had people not been propelled to desperation and convinced that they had been left behind to die. That kind of cause-and-effect logic isn't exactly DoD's strong suit, however. "Breakdown of order + no military control = civilians verboten" pretty much sums it up.

Even if it didn't, though, the assumption that guided the right-wing focus on looting would win through: that without the police to control them, people will steal anything they can get their hands on. It doesn't matter where it comes from: whether that's due to assuming that they are amoral "rational actors" and thus discounting the sociological and social-psychological influences entailed in the abandonment, or whether it's due to distrust of human nature, or whether it's due to the belief (whether expressed or not) that blacks will steal and kill and rape anything they can get their hands on, the end result is the same: FEMA keeping people out.

And, yes, race does fit into this, although I don't think it's for the reason most people think it does. The people running the show are wealthy and white, and the people affected are poor and black. While they may not be overtly racist or classist, they're simply not going to identify with the victims as much as they would otherwise. If they did, they may be more likely to say "screw order, these people need help", and be less inclined to believe that only the imposition of order will keep them from running wild. The victims are seen more as part of "us", rather than "them".

That didn't happen, though. "They" were left to die.

And, by the by, this isn't just a DHS/DoD thing- it also explains the White House's insistence on total control that possibly lengthened the delay. The Bush administration is used to insisting on total control in foreign military operations and on complete sovereignty. If New Orleans is seen through a military lens, why on earth should we expect anything different? They won't accept any authority by the United Nations; ceding it to a Democratic governor is completely out of the question. Whether this comes from adopting the DoD's culture or whether it has created the DoD's culture (or whether both stem from neoconservatism) is important but irrelevant in this case- it's what appears to have happened. That's also why they wouldn't accept international help, and may have exacerbated the unwillingness to allow private assistance- they wanted to be in total control and show people that they could handle this themselves.

Finally, the defenses of Bush that stem from this are little different. The argument that Blanco was responsible by not ceding total authority to Bush presupposes that that's necessary. As I've said before, not having expansive rules of engagement and the ability to force evacuation would not stop the national guard from protecting themselves and aiding in voluntary evacuation. The argument, besides being contradicted by the FEMA policy I linked to below, is based on false premises.

It's odd to think that the responsibility here might link back to DoD, I'll admit. Still, it does fit. DHS needs to be reformed, at the very least, but DoD may need attention too.

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