Katrina and 9/11: Criminal Incompetence

What has been obvious to many of us for some time should be obvious to almost everybody in the wake of the botch government – city, state, and local, there’s plenty of incompetence to go around – has made of Hurricane Katrina.

The empire has no clothes.

After 9/11, the government spent countless billions reshuffling the deck chairs on the great Ship of State. Acknowledging implicitly that the United States is an empire in fact if not in rhetoric (and sometimes it’s plenty imperial in rhetoric), Congress dumped all the agencies remotely resembling protection, security, and response into the Homeland Security Administration.

With all the billions spent and the bureaucratic flow charts rejiggered, our elected and appointed officials could look at the people (perhaps crossing their fingers behind their backs if they had a sense of how things really work in Washington, which all too many elected officials clearly don’t) and claim to have done something about preventing and responding to disasters.

Then Katrina hit, and all the reshuffling was exposed as the sham it was. Even a number of conservative commentators who are not complete shills for whatever lie the administration is floating at the moment were understandably dismayed.

Remember, Katrina made landfall on Monday morning, Aug. 29. The 24/7 cable stations had been hyping it for a week before that and deploying reporters to do the usual windblown reports on "nature’s fury." The formalities of declaring a federal emergency had been completed, with President Bush signing the relevant documents, on Saturday the 27th. As the hurricane approached the Gulf Coast, President Bush and FEMA Director Michael Brown were briefed by Dr. Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, a briefing that included the likelihood that the levees surrounding New Orleans would at least overflow and possibly be breached, flooding the city.

New Orleans Mayor Nagin issued an evacuation order, but didn’t bother to try to use the city’s long-standing evacuation plan that involved commandeering school buses and municipal buses to help evacuate people who didn’t have cars, didn’t have much money, and probably didn’t have relatives in the suburbs. On Monday, Katrina made landfall – hitting Gulfport, Miss., directly rather than New Orleans, causing a brief sigh of relief. But almost immediately water started to flow over the levees. The flooding, which would get much worse soon, had begun.

It wasn’t until 11:30 that FEMA director Michael Brown, a failed lawyer with no disaster experience, whose rise to that position is even more scandalous than the mainstream media have indicated, requested that the Department of Homeland Security dispatch 1,000 people to New Orleans. In his memo, he gave them two days to get there. Really.

The long and short of it is that the federal government’s emergency-management capability, after all that beefing up, after all those scenarios duly memoed and filed, after all the empty promises, turned out to be nothing but a muscle-bound behemoth that cold do little but trip over its own red tape. It had no sense of mission or urgency – Brown’s first impulse was to make sure the agency got plenty of favorable PR – and couldn’t move without 17 signatures in triplicate.

If you want more gory details than you can handle, including truly heartrending stories of abuse at the hands of government agents, plenty of links and a good deal of barely controlled fury, Andrew Sullivan, on his blog, has been fuming from the beginning (though he occasionally gets sidetracked by a gay-marriage development).

The administration eventually did what it usually does, making this a military mission, and many of those military people are doing a reasonably competent job, finally. But the episode suggests strongly that the United States is in an advanced condition of imperial sclerosis with a good deal of decadence already strongly advanced.

We are ruled by a perpetual adolescent, the second in a row answering that description to be president, fully as daft and divorced from reality as any of the crazy late Roman emperors. None of the departments tasked with doing what most Americans think government actually ought to do, like protecting the people from disasters foreign and domestic, is the least bit serious about what is supposed to be its job. They are all, whether in the Homeland Security sham or the "intelligence community," more interested in turf battles, protecting their secrets, and playing politics than in doing anything remotely serious.

Faced on 9/11 with an attack by a stateless terrorist network/organization that is decentralized and dispersed, coordinated through the Internet and other technologies, our government did nothing to confront the actual enemy. Instead, it did what a country with a capable military preferred; it found a state certain factions had been itching to confront anyway and hyped that third-rate dictatorship that posed no real threat even to its neighbors into an imminent threat to the most powerful nation-state ever to inhabit the planet. Most of the sheeple bought it.

Four years later, Osama bin Laden is still at large and there’s not the slightest evidence that our vaunted government operations have made even a bit or progress in penetrating his operation. Terrorist attacks around the world have increased, not decreased. The U.S. military is overstretched and ill-used in an occupation that is going so poorly the few officials in touch with reality simply hope that it won’t be too blindingly obvious the U.S. tail is between its legs when it leaves. Military morale and recruiting are in trouble. Anti-Americanism is increasing around the world, including among people who have seldom succumbed to it in the past.

And the terrorists have been watching the stunningly incompetent response to Katrina, rubbing their hands that the Bush administration might well have used up whatever good will it had left among the American people.

The empire has no clothes.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).