The Red Cross has just announced a new disaster-response partnership with Wal-Mart. When the next hurricane hits, it will be a co-production of Big Aid and Big Box.
This, apparently, is the lesson learned from the government’s calamitous response to Hurricane Katrina: Businesses do disaster better.
“It’s all going to be private enterprise before it’s over,” Billy Wagner, emergency management chief for the Florida Keys, currently under hurricane watch for Tropical Storm Ernesto, said in April. “They’ve got the expertise. They’ve got the resources.”
But before this new consensus goes any further, perhaps it’s time to take a look at where the privatization of disaster began, and where it will inevitably lead.
It was the “Mission Accomplished” of George W. Bush’s second term, and an announcement of that magnitude called for a suitably dramatic location. But what was the right backdrop for the infamous “We do not torture” declaration? With characteristic audacity, the Bush team settled on downtown Panama City.
It was certainly bold. An hour and a half’s drive from where Bush stood, the US military ran the notorious School of the Americas from 1946 to 1984, a sinister educational institution that, if it had a motto, might have been “We do torture.” It is here in Panama, and later, at the school’s new location in Fort Benning, Georgia, where the roots of the current torture scandals can be found.
When Manuel Rozental got home one night last month, friends told him two strange men had been asking questions about him. In this close-knit indigenous community in southwestern Colombia ringed by soldiers, right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas, strangers asking questions about you is never a good thing.
The Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, which leads a political movement that is autonomous from all those armed forces, held an emergency meeting. They decided that Rozental, their communications coordinator, who had been instrumental in campaigns for agrarian reform and against a Free Trade Agreement with the United States, had to get out of the country—fast.
Outside the 2,000-bed temporary shelter in Baton Rouge’s River Center, a Church of Scientology band is performing a version of Bill Withers’s classic “Use Me”—a refreshingly honest choice. “If it feels this good getting used,” the Scientology singer belts out, “just keep on using me until you use me up.”
Ten-year-old Nyler, lying face down on a massage table, has pretty much the same attitude. She is not quite sure why the nice lady in the yellow Scientology Volunteer Minister T-shirt wants to rub her back, but “it feels so good,” she tells me, so who really cares? I ask Nyler if this is her first massage. “Assist!” hisses the volunteer minister, correcting my Scientology lingo. Nyler shakes her head no; since fleeing New Orleans after a tree fell on her house, she has visited this tent many times, becoming something of an assist-aholic. “I have nerves,” she explains in a blissed-out massage voice. “I have what you call nervousness.”
On September 4, six days after Katrina hit, I saw the first glimmer of hope. “The people of New Orleans will not go quietly into the night, scattering across this country to become homeless in countless other cities while federal relief funds are funneled into rebuilding casinos, hotels, chemical plants…. We will not stand idly by while this disaster is used as an opportunity to replace our homes with newly built mansions and condos in a gentrified New Orleans.”
The statement came from Community Labor United, a coalition of low-income groups in New Orleans. It went on to demand that a committee made up of evacuees “oversee FEMA, the Red Cross and other organizations collecting resources on behalf of our people…. We are calling for evacuees from our community to actively participate in the rebuilding of New Orleans.”
Hussain Osman, one of the men alleged to have participated in London’s failed bombings on July 21, recently told Italian investigators that they he prepared for the attacks by watching “films on the war in Iraq,” La Repubblica reported. “Especially those where women and children were being killed and exterminated by British and American soldiers… of widows, mothers and daughters that cry.”
It has become an article of faith that Britain was vulnerable to terror because of its politically correct anti-racism. Yet Osman’s comments suggest that what propelled at least some of the bombers was rage at what they saw as extreme racism. And what else can we call the belief—so prevalent we barely notice it—that American and European lives are worth more than the lives of Arabs and Muslims, so much more that their deaths in Iraq are not even counted?
When United Nations troops kill residents of the Haitian slum Cité Soleil, friends and family often place photographs of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on their bodies. The photographs silently insist that there is a method to the madness raging in Port-au-Prince. Poor Haitians are being slaughtered not for being “violent,” as we so often hear, but for being militant; for daring to demand the return of their elected president.
It was only ten years ago that President Clinton celebrated Aristide’s return to power as “the triumph of freedom over fear.” So what changed? Corruption? Violence? Fraud? Aristide is certainly no saint. But even if the worst of the allegations are true, they pale next to the rap sheets of the convicted killers, drug smugglers and arms traders who ousted Aristide and continue to enjoy free rein, with full support from the Bush Administration and the UN. Turning Haiti over to this underworld gang out of concern for Aristide’s lack of “good governance” is like escaping an annoying date by accepting a lift home from Charles Manson.
Even after her death, it seems the attacks on Zahra Kazemi will not end. It was only two months ago that Canadians were stunned by new evidence that the Montreal photojournalist was tortured to death while in Iranian custody. Kazemi was arrested in June 2003 while taking photographs outside of a prison in Iran, the country of her birth. To punish her for this transgression, Kazemi’s captors raped and beat her, according to a doctor who fled Iran to tell the story.
Close to two years later, there are new attempts to cover Kazemi’s lens, to prevent her photographs from reaching public eyes – only now the censorship is happening inside her adopted country of Canada. Last week Montreal’s Cote St. Luc Library removed five of Kazemi’s photographs from display after Jewish patrons complained of alleged “pro-Palestinian bias”; they left up the rest of the exhibition, which had already been displayed in Paris. Kazemi’s son, Stephan Hachemi, called the removal of the Palestinian photographs “a violation of my mother’s spirit” and rightly demanded that the library show the entire exhibit or nothing at all. So the library took down the entire show.
Gordon Brown has a new idea about how to “make poverty history” in time for the G-8 summit in Scotland. With Washington so far refusing to double its aid to Africa by 2015, the British Chancellor is appealing to the “richer oil-producing states” of the Middle East to fill the funding gap. “Oil wealth urged to save Africa,” reads the headline in London’s Observer.
Here is a better idea: Instead of Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth being used to “save Africa,” how about if Africa’s oil wealth was used to save Africa—along with its gas, diamond, gold, platinum, chromium, ferroalloy and coal wealth?
Brace yourself for a flood of gruesome new torture snapshots. Last week, a federal judge ordered the Defense Department to release dozens of additional photographs and videotapes depicting prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
The photographs will elicit what has become a predictable response: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will claim to be shocked and will assure us that action is already being taken to prevent such abuses from happening again. But imagine, for a moment, if events followed a different script. Imagine if Rumsfeld responded like Col. Mathieu in "Battle of Algiers," Gillo Pontecorvo's famed 1965 film about the National Liberation Front's attempt to liberate Algeria from French colonial rule. In one of the film's key scenes, Mathieu finds himself in a situation familiar to top officials in the Bush administration: He is being grilled by a room filled with journalists about allegations that French paratroopers are torturing Algerian prisoners.