Waiting for the Outside World

In the "old days" of the U.S. peace movement, when many people focused on the threat of a global nuclear "exchange" an organization called Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) postulated what would happen if a major American city was actually blasted by an atomic bomb.

The doctors described utterly horrific scenarios extending far beyond the numbers of dead and severely wounded. In plain words they described what the few survivors would experience: a landscape that not only had sustained unimaginable casualties, but which had also suffered the destruction of its transportation and health care infrastructure. No ambulances would arrive with lights and sirens to whisk away the suffering. Doctors, nurses, blood plasma, pain killers, antibiotics, bandages – all would be destroyed along with the hospitals and highways.

As difficult as it was to picture such a reality, the hardest thing to imagine was that in a nuclear war there would be no "outside" from where help will come. When every major city suffers the same fate as yours, no one "out there" can help you. "Out there" is all gone. Instantly, in city after city, life becomes a contaminated, pre-industrial struggle for survival.

Fortunately for the human race, PSR’s scenarios have thus far remained a symbolic, educational exercise.

Listening to and watching the news coming out of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast towns of Mississippi, one can sense devastation on a scale rarely experienced in this country. New Orleans’ location below sea level and the deluge following the rupture of its levees makes Katrina’s blow even worse than when Hurricane Andrew smashed South Florida.

Now we hold our collective breath to see if hospital patients can be rescued before emergency generators are swamped. Mile after mile of city streets are inundated. The public water supply is getting contaminated. Desperate people wait for helicopters to rescue them from rooftops broiling in the summer sun. My nephew, lucky enough to have transportation and smart enough to use it in time, got out. But how long will he be able to stay with friends in Lafayette? And what will a young man, living month to month on a waiter’s pay, do for work if the Hard Rock Café never reopens?

And yet, as frightening as the situation is for New Orleans and the surrounding area, there is still an "outside." People are mobilizing assistance. It may be inadequate at first and ultimately too late for some, but people and institutions in 48 other states are doing their best to assist their fellow citizens of Louisiana and Mississippi.

What would it be like to endure suffering on a scale somewhere between a nuclear attack and Hurricane Katrina – with nobody "out there" to mobilize assistance for you? That is the case today in Iraq.

These comparisons started coming to mind last month when an inversion trapped the people of Phoenix in a seemingly relentless heat wave. For weeks temperatures soared over 100 degrees and 2005 literally became a killer summer. Then I thought of what Phoenix would be like without electricity. And I thought of Baghdad.

In Baghdad, 115 and 120-degree weather is the norm all summer. But unless you are among the elite and have a private generator, you are lucky to get a few hours of unscheduled power a day, frequently in the middle of the night when demand is lowest. That is the reality for most of the four million people in Baghdad and some 20 million people in the rest of Iraq – this summer, last summer, and the one before that.

Water and sewer plants, thoroughly bombed by the Elder Bush in 1991, were repaired enough to limp along under a dozen years of sanctions. As a result, water-borne diseases became a significant health problem prior to the U.S. invasion of 2003, and have since gotten dramatically worse. What passes for hospital care would make even the poorest American’s blood run cold – and that’s when medical facilities are operating at their best, not overrun with massive numbers of wounded from a U.S. attack or a suicide bomber. In Fallujah and other cities besieged by American troops, ambulances with lights and sirens don’t whisk away the wounded; they are fired on by the U.S. military. Trucks taking pain killers, bandages and antibiotics to medical clinics are forcibly turned away. The already substandard water supplies are destroyed by the artillery and air strikes.

National Public Radio today featured interviews with people describing what life is like after the hurricane. A woman from Gulfport, Mississippi, trying unsuccessfully to hold back her tears, said that even though people were "…amazingly resilient, some are in shock…some are running out of clean water already…my husband has journaled every day of his life – every single day since he was a boy – and those journals are all gone now."

After a couple more questions, the NPR reporter thanked her sincerely for talking with him. As her voice cracked she responded, "Thank you for giving me an opportunity to let the outside world know help is needed."

That woman in Gulfport was not worrying about next year’s congressional elections, just as millions of her counterparts in Iraq are not worrying about their constitution. She, and they, are worried about having safe water to drink in the summer heat, wondering when the electricity will come back on, grieving journals lost forever in a flood or photo albums lost in a midnight house raid, anxious about ever seeing their home rebuilt, hoping somehow to find a job.

Rightly so, the massive news coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation is beginning to evoke Americans’ inherent compassion towards people who’ve been dealt an unfair blow. If the news media did a similar job describing the hell life has become for people in Iraq, Americans’ sense of outrage and compassion would be similarly stirred. And Iraqis could count on help instead of bombs coming from the outside world.