Note: Check the comments for a photoessay comparison, and a commentary on Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”.
“The measure of a man is the way he bears up under misfortune.” — Plutarch
What is the measure of a man, a political party, an ideology or an Administration? Is the collective whole of one’s lifetime achievements enough, or would a subset of the timeline through which a lifetime passes provide an adequate sampling so as to derive a concept of what one might expect in the future? If our answer to this question is the latter, then the second term of George W. Bush, along with the GOP-controlled Congress and Justice Department, has presented us with the opportunity to see up close and personal several key examples embodied in the form of two cities located nearly half a world from each other: New Orleans & Fallujah.
In the Dickens novel “A Tale of Two Cities”, the story takes place amidst a period of political corruption and social discontent that is evident in both the London and Paris of the times. The title of this article draws a rough analogy to that, but with one important distinction: instead of a story involving redemption against such a backdrop, this article cites two cities destroyed by the political and moral corruption of these times and illustrating the social discontent that results.
Ideally, it doesn’t miss the target.
In the first two years of George Bush’s second term as “President”, the nation and the world witnessed events involving Fallujah and New Orleans that have since become standard marks in a growing litany of incidents depicting the dangerous arrogance and incompetence of the Bush Administration. The first – actually consisting of three assaults on the city of Fallujah, occurred in 2004.
Basic Background: As the Iraq debacle expanded into an ever-deepening quagmire, US forces were hard pressed to “win the hearts and minds” of the Iraq population. Violence broke out everywhere as “insurgents” resisted the US occupying forces.
In one particularly terrifying uprising, four Blackwater contractors were killed in Fallujah, their bodies dragged through the streets and hung from a bridge in effigy.
The once-quiet city quickly became a hotbed of “insurgent” activity. US Forces responded with three major assaults against the city, nearly destroying it in order to “save” it. The last major wave of military activity began around November. Reports of the use of a napalm-like substance called “White Phosphorous”, and the explicit use of it in “Shake and Bake” strikes directly against insurgents – in violation of UN treaties explicitly banning the use of it in that manner – began to surface. Included in these reports were horrific stories of civilian casualties. Women and children were allegedly killed or maimed through the use of “WP”; pictures of corpses with their skin melted off and caramelized circulated the internet. Only after bloggers broke the initial story regarding the use of White Phosphorus did the true horror of the carnage begin to emerge. The US government had been lying about the usage of “WP” as a direct assault weapon until confronted with irrefutable evidence to the contrary.
The nation was outraged.
The world was outraged.
The explicit, duplicitous statements of the government regarding the assaults on Fallujah reflected the still-emerging evidence of how intelligence was manipulated to justify the incursion into Iraq in the first place under false pretenses. The credibility of the US Government, and the Bush Administration in particular, took a major hit.
An Aside: Our military consists of men and women from all walks of life. They have sworn to risk life and limb in pursuit of the ideals laid down in our Constitution, our Declaration of Independence and supported by a long line of those who have fought and died for our freedoms. They swear oaths to uphold the Constitution and obey the orders of the Commander-in-Chief – something that should be straightforward in thought, if not always execution. Changes have been going on within the Pentagon, spurred by the Secretary of Defense and in conjunction with the White House, that have come closer than ever before to putting those orders in conflict with the first part of that oath. Our soldiers are being put into situations where they are not free to disregard or disobey orders just as their leadership up the chain of command are likewise unable to speak out, and are often compelled by circumstance to act. More and more often, they are likely to find themselves in a Catch-22 where they are damned if they do, or damned if they don’t. This Administration is the reason. Ultimately, what transpired at Fallujah rests within the confines of the White House and the Pentagon, at the desks of the President and Secretary of Defense, respectively.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch: During this same year, a portent of things to come began to emerge with regard to New Orleans and the preparation – or lack thereof – for a major category hurricane.
July 23, 2004 — FEMA releases the results of “Hurricane Pam,” a hurricane simulation based on a direct landfall of a storm in New Orleans. The simulation stated that a hurricane in New Orleans would result in:
- 30 million cubic yards of debris and 237,000 cubic yards of household hazardous waste
- the need for about 1,000 shelters to be kept open 100 days
- the likely breach of the existing levee system
FEMA and DHS are supposed to come up with a “master plan” for New Orleans based on this study but money ran out and the plan was never produced.
September 14, 2004 — The WashingtonPost reports that Walter Maestri, an emergency manager, has 10,000 body bags ready in case a major hurricane ever hits New Orleans. The article says, “If a strong Category 4 storm such as Ivan made a direct hit, he warned, 50,000 people could drown, and this city of Mardi Gras and jazz could cease to exist.” The article also talks about the budget cuts that George Bush foisted on the state of Louisiana for provention measures.
September 15, 2004 — Sen. Landrieu again addresses the Senate, this time talking about the predictions of what a hurricane could do to New Orleans. “We are talking about severe devastation when a category 3 or category 4 or category 5 hurricane pushes that water out of the gulf, out of Lake Ponchartrain into the tremendously populated areas around the gulf coast.”
Senator Landrieu concludes by saying, “I hate to say maybe it is going to take the loss thousands of lives on the gulf coast to make this country wake up and realize in what we are under-investing. “
As the year 2004 came to a close, and 2005 began, the warnings regarding preparation for a devastating storm in the Gulf Coast region were again heard in the halls of Congress:
January 26, 2005 — Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) addresses the House of Representatives and urges Congress to pay attention to New Orleans. “The experience of Southeast Asia should convince us all of the urgent need for congressional action to prevent wide-scale loss of life and economic destruction at home and abroad. Prevention and planning will pay off,” he says.
In August of 2005, while the “President” was on extended vacation in Crawford (again), another major disaster loomed just off the Gulf of Mexico: Hurricane Katrina. The Bush Administration assured residents in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi that FEMA and the federal government would be ready.
One of the best timelines assembled on what did, and did not, happen in the hours before, during, and after Katrina struck is a timeline from Iconoclasts’s blog. The extended length of time that Bush, Cheney and Condoleeza Rice remained on vacation, out of sight or staging photo ops is ridiculous. The failures of FEMA and out-of-touch surrealism with which federal authorities managed to repeatedly mismanage the crisis are staggering. Here are just a few key excerpts:
Monday, August 29, 2005 — Hurricane Katrina comes ashore just east of Grand Isle, Louisiana, at 6:30 a.m. ET. New Orleans is 80% evacuated, meaning that there are approximately 96,000 people left in the city of 480,000. Bush received a briefing from FEMA director Michael Brown, and left Crawford to fly to Arizona for a speech on Medicare. Considerations began about releasing oil from the Strategic Oil Reserve — no decision was reached.
Levees are breeched in New Orleans, causing the Lake Pontchartrain to begin pouring into the city. The Times-Picayune reports that Red Cross mobilisation has begun.
FEMA goes into disaster mode to begin preparing to deal with Katrina’s aftermath. “I want the folks there on our Gulf Coast to know that the federal government is prepared to help you when the storm passes,” the President says.
FEMA director Brown maintains that FEMA has “planned for this kind of disaster for many years because we’ve always known about New Orleans’ situation.”
Tuesday, August 30, 2005 — Flooding becomes severe in New Orleans, submerging 80% of the city in water deeper than 20ft in some places. Power and sewer are non-functional.
Bush visits Coronado, California to give a speech against the backdrop of the USS Ronald Reagan. His handlers, knowing that the ship was the venue where Mr. Bush gave his ill-fated “Mission Accomplished” speech in 2003 make sure that the ship stays off-camera. Bush’s speech is about Iraq and the need for troops to secure Iraq’s oilfields. Meanwhile, the US proves unable to secure its own oilfields in Louisiana. He is presented with a guitar afterword by country singer Mark Willis.
Bush decides finally to return to Washington, D.C.
Also on this day, Bush joins Senator John McCain in a small celebration of McCain’s 69th birthday. They have cake.
Cable news shows pictures of the USS Bataan steaming through the gulf to provide aid. The ship would not be allowed to do anything in New Orleans for days, however, despite having plans in place because the President didn’t give any orders for them. The BBC would learn this on September 4th (see that day for details).
Wednesday, August 31, 2005 — Bush flies back to D.C. and holds a press conference. He claims to have been updated by DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff.
The Times-Picayune reports that the few Guardsmen in New Orleans were quickly overwhelmed by evacuees. From the article: “Such a breakdown did not bode well for other evacuees. As the afternoon wore on, hope faded, replaced by anger.”
Thursday, September 1, 2005 — Rather than direct the U.S. military to immediately assist the thousands of people without food or water in the city center, Bush assured the nation that expected gasoline shortages would be temporary and that his father and former President Clinton were ready to pass the tin can to ensure private-sector support for rebuilding New Orleans.
On “Good Morning, America,” Bush says that there is no difference between people taking foot and water and people looting non-essential merchandise. He says there should be “zero tolerance” for both types. He also states, “There is a lot of help coming.”
Condoleeza Rice, the Secretary of State is seen in New York buying a pair of $7,000 dollar shoes. She is booed at a showing of Monty Python’s “Spam-a-lot” and accosted by a New Yorker who reportedly says, “How dare you shop for shoes while thousands are dying and homeless!”
Dick Cheney remains on vacation in Wyoming.
Friday, September 2, 2005 — National Guardsmen finally start arriving in New Orleans in increased numbers, though chaos still rules most of the city.
Bush visits the Gulf for a photo-opportunity and tells people that things will be made right — especially for Trent Lott. Bush says, in a tone-deaf attempt to brighten the mood, that “Out of the rubble of [Sen.] Trent Lott’s house–he’s lost his entire house–there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch.” Insert your own mint julep joke here.
Saturday, September 3, 2005 — Evacuations finally reach a steady state.
FEMA refuses to let the Red Cross deliver food. “The Homeland Security Department has requested and continues to request that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans,” says Renita Hosler, spokeswoman for the Red Cross, and continues, “Right now access is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities. We have been at the table every single day [asking for access]. We cannot get into New Orleans against their orders.” Southern Baptist elements inside the Red Cross try to spin the situation to FEMA’s advantage, instead keeping to the GOP party line: “the task is too big, the people should have left, the local officials are clueless.” This will be repeated over and over by the feds in coming days.
On his weekly radio address, Bush says, “we will not allow bureaucracy to get in the way of saving lives.” Many would argue that he already had.
Sen. Landrieu criticizes FEMA, saying, “I understand that the U.S. Forest Service had water-tanker aircraft available to help douse the fires raging on our riverfront, but FEMA has yet to accept the aid. When Amtrak offered trains to evacuate significant numbers of victims – far more efficiently than buses – FEMA again dragged its feet. Offers of medicine, communications equipment and other desperately needed items continue to flow in, only to be ignored by the agency.”
Landrieu goes on to tell about apparent faked levee reconstruction efforts at a Bush photo-op: “Touring this critical site yesterday with the President, I saw what I believed to be a real and significant effort to get a handle on a major cause of this catastrophe. Flying over this critical spot again this morning, less than 24 hours later, it became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw were this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment. The good and decent people of southeast Louisiana and the Gulf Coast – black and white, rich and poor, young and old – deserve far better from their national government,”
The federal government had failed the people of New Orleans on a scale never before seen. The key players of the Bush Administration -the President, the Vice President and the Secretary of State – remained on vacation for FOUR days while the city drowned.
In two years, two cities nearly half a world apart were almost completely destroyed relating to the deliberate actions and policies of the Bush Administration in one case and the utterly indifferent inaction of it in another. Aided by the Republican-controlled Congress, this Administration lied to the nation and the world about their responsibility for two of the most heinous disasters our nation has ever had the misfortune to experience.
What is the measure of a man, a political party, an ideology or an Administration? Perhaps the words of Abigail Van Buren (of “Dear Abby” fame) can shed some wisdom on that question:
“The best index to a person’s character is (a) how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and (b) how he treats people who can’t fight back.”
If we use this as a guide in our assessment of the men and women of this Administration, taken individually as well as collectively, we are likely to all arrive at the same conclusion: there’s not much of worth and substance once the hot air is let out.
In the meantime, we’re left blowin’ in the wind.
By any measure that I’ve found, the Presidency of George W. Bush is now, and has always been, toxic to our nation. The same tired cycles of endless finger-pointing, lying, subterfuge and aggression underscore all actions, all policies and all propaganda. The events surrounding the assaults on Fallujah and the flooding of New Orleans tell the same tale – the cost of allowing this Administration and the Republican majority in Congress to continue is too high. We cannot afford it.
The world cannot afford it.
While I have entitled this series “Danse Macabre” – the “Dance of Death” – I have refrained from showing any selections so far of the unfortunately abundant (and rapidly growing) array of photographs related to the carnage left in the wake of our rampaging ship of state. It is my hope that this series garners readers based on the words alone – mine, or those of others who have been quoted within – instead of relying on the power of a picture to speak a thousand words. My intention, however, is still true: we must rein in this out-of-control Executive Branch, and scour the walls and halls of our leadership to eliminate any last vestiges of their contamination, before we find ourselves bereft of the ability to do so.
Even now, the mounting evidence of Presidential over-reach is beginning to be reported. We cannot allow the carnage to continue unopposed. Congress must be taken to task, and the Republican leadership should now understand that continued support of this President and Administration constitutes nothing less than the aiding and abetting of a criminal, treasonous enterprise.
I’ll close here, with a final quote to reflect upon — this time not with how it relates to the Bush Administration and the corrupt Republican majority in Congress, but in terms of our own individual selves:
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
— Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love, 1963
Now is our time of challenge of controversy. Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of their country…