Sunday, September 18, 2005

Souls in the great machine

As I read the endless litany of FEMA’s obstruction and interference with the business of saving lives in New Orleans, I find myself struggling to understand how anyone could stand over the dying and tell a medical doctor to stop helping, because he wasn’t authorized

It’s one thing for a Chertoff or a Brown to dismiss the suffering and death of people who are of no consequence to them. It is another entirely to stand on the tarmac at Louis Armstrong International Airport and direct a doctor to stop saving people, and to have those people die .

Like most southerners, I tend to think in analogy and story. I have struggled to find a storyline that places such acts into a human and historical context. The analogy that most quickly comes to mind will most likely anger people, as it comes from NAZI Germany.

Before you stop reading, know this: I am not referring to the monumental evil of those who led that nation into the darkest corners of human history. It is not the naked, glaring evil of those who planned the death camps or herded the innocent into the gas chambers that comes to mind.

It is the banal routine, a conditioned indifference, of those who scheduled and loaded the trains for Auschwitz I am thinking of.

A great many people, in the immediate aftermath of the storm, reacted to the survivors on the ground in the city this way: we would never behave as they did. They would cheerfully sit and dehydrate or starve until help arrived.

If challenged, I suspect that many of these same comfortable Americans would challenge the idea that they would have behave as FEMA did. If that is true—“people like us would not behave in that way”--then where did the FEMA ground troops come from?

What disturbs me most is not the criminal indifference of a Chertoff or a Brown. It is that those on the ground so willingly do what is obviously wrong because they are told so by their leaders. They believe that their wiser betters know what to do. They are merely following orders and procedures. That the consequence of those orders and procedures is suffering and death does not occur to them. If it does, perhaps they tell themselves that,--though some may die at their feet--it is done so that more may be saved elsewhere.

Left to FEMA’s hands, no rescue workers would have started up the stairs of the Twin Towers. It would have been too dangerous. No fire fighters would have hastened to Chernobyl and valiantly worked to their certain death. The wounded and the traumatized would have been left on the sidewalks to fend for themselves until they could be dispersed out-of-sight and out-of-mind. And FEMA would not have lacked for ready hands to do this work.

To those who say “we would never behave that way”, let me ask: if you think you would not take water and food for your children, would you leave other people to die at your feet if it violated procedures? If the orders came, would you (perhaps grudgingly) load those survivors onto cattle cars to a destination unknown?

The greatest and most frightening lesson of Katrina is not that people would steal water and food to survive, or that our current leadership is monumentally indifferent to the fate of our population.

The lesson is this: those who think “such things could never happen here” are wrong. Many would willingly schedule the trains and load the cars with their fellow Americans just as they loaded cast off clothes and can goods for Baton Rouge and Houston. That the “good” Americans are capable of the indifference and occasional malevolence that followed should frighten us all.

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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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