Our nation's misplaced priorities underlie savagery after storm

September 06, 2005|By G. Jefferson Price III

MUCH HAS been revealed to us by the unspeakable calamity that has struck the Gulf Coast.

The highest authorities in the land will be blaming each other for some time for the way in which a place in the richest, most powerful nation in the world descended so quickly into primitive conditions and savage behavior. They already are.

The most stunning revelation has been how very close to the surface the capacity for savagery exists in America and why it is there. The reaction to this behavior - to the looting, to the shooting, to the raping that became part of the behavior in New Orleans - has been equally visceral and primitive.

Shoot them, urge the pundits blathering from the comfort of their offices and studios far away from the scene. Some politicians joined in the clamor.

Question is, why are they surprised? And why can't they come up with a more constructive reaction than M-16s, cocked and loaded? Why are Americans in New Orleans behaving so furiously?

The short answer is that they can because there is no authority to stop them.

The longer answer is that while the United States is spending hundreds of billions of dollars trying to defeat an enemy it helped to create in the war in Iraq, while cutting taxes for people who aren't genuinely needy, large swaths of the American population are barely surviving. The governments in the urban centers where the poor tend to live can barely service their populations, much less control the worst parts, where murder and other crimes are commonplace.

Those people who were on a rampage in New Orleans are the poorest of the poor. They are the least-educated. Many of them couldn't get out of town even if they wanted to leave before Katrina because they simply didn't have the means to move.

I make no excuse for the murderers and rapists and plunderers who have made a disastrous situation worse. They ought to be punished. It's the conditions that enabled them to behave this way that are deplorable, and not all of that can be blamed on a hurricane.

If the resources and energy being spent on this government's misguided adventure in Iraq were ever devoted to providing a dependable infrastructure in America's cities, to developing suitable housing, schools, jobs, health care and other instruments of hope and inspiration for the poorest in the land, a city like New Orleans might have been better prepared for such a disaster.

We speak of homeland security in these perilous times when America has been attacked by terrorism at home - not by terrorism from Iraq, incidentally. Billions of dollars have been spent to try to prevent another attack and to prepare for one that could be worse than 9/11.

In addition to spending billions of dollars, Americans have been asked to give up some of their civil liberties for the sake of homeland security.

The greatest fear is of a nuclear attack, which could be far more devastating than even Katrina. Apart from the human and property wreckage that Katrina caused, that hurricane also made it clear that we are not prepared for a major catastrophe.

A terrorist attack is not tracked by weather forecasters; there would be no advance notice. The Department of Homeland Security has a Web site with information about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. But it's not encouraging. It doesn't make me feel safer.

So what about the people who would launch such an attack against us? Why are they so enraged? The Department of Homeland Security seems not to be addressing that issue. Nor does the administration.

They should, though. Just as they should have figured out a way to make New Orleans a place where rage would not simmer just beneath the surface.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun.

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