America Discovers Her Third World Inner Self
It took four days after Katrina struck before George W. Bush came to realize the extent of the catastrophe. When he finally toured the region on Friday 2 September, the President uttered a telling phrase concerning his helplessness: It’s worse than you can imagine.
The Americans along with the rest of the world turned in to discover devastated cities on their TV screens, haggard refugees more often than not left to their own devices, bands of looters, armed gangs arguing over the spoils, cadavers strewn left and right along the streets, and oil platforms wedged under bridges…
The number of victims is impossible to estimate but will doubtlessly be counted in the thousands. A Louisiana senator suggested 10,000 dead.
The images coming out of Louisiana recall the tsunami which struck South-East Asia in Decmeber 2004. One could have hardly imagined that the same spectacle of destruction and desolation, the same human tragedy would take place in a developed country, without mentioning the most powerful in the world.
On this occasion, America rediscovered her third-world inner self. And as always, a natural disaster has its human and political causes.
In the South, where racial divisions and tension remain very much alive, Blacks and the poorest are often the same people and they were the first victims of the hurricane and the floods that followed.
It is these people who are in the deepest distress and who are in need of immediate help. They were the first to feel the consequences of what the New York Times called the total breakdown of organized society.
There is another lesson to draw from this American tragedy: The Hyperpower (as former Foreign Minister Huber Védrine used to say), despite its economic and military potential --which it is often tempted to use overseas—is incapable of dealing with a domestic catastrophe of this magnitude.
The governmental structures were inadequate, the rescue effort insufficient, law enforcement poorly organized. Officially-commissioned studies tried in vain to draw attention to the fragility of the levees which protected New Orleans.
As George W. Bush’s numbers reach an historic low for an American president in his second term of office, debate begins to grow in the United States. Does it make sense to spend millions of dollars to make war in Iraq when America cannot protect its own citizens?
The answer to this question will depend on US domestic politics in the months to come. Katrina could mark a turning point in US history comparable to September 11.