Friday, January 22, 2010

Disaster Lessons

Disaster Lessons

In Port-Au-Prince, devastated by an earthquake, the police are armed and looking out for violence. Newspaper reporters of a law-and-order orientation, many of them with racist agendas who project their own thirst for violence, are reporting gangs, armed with machetes, and looting. “Roaming bands of young men were carrying machetes, looting and robbing everywhere you go said one aid worker. “ ( 2010/01/haiti-sees-140000-dead-fe.html). No doubt some people become violent in desperate situations. Some people are looking to take advantage of chaos and disorder; some people react violently to their own suffering. But most other observers see the terrible desperation of people who have lost everything, who lack food or water, and marvel at how peaceful they are. “Reports of armed gangs, including video of young men with machetes, have appeared in citizen and news video today. . . . But blog and media reports of looting appear to be based on only a few cases.”

It is Katrina all over. The poor and largely black population who survived the flood were reported to be violent and looting. The National Guard, armed to the teeth, were there to maintain law and order. Later reports showed that the violence reported existed mostly in the imagination of reporters. The greatest threat of violence came from the heavily armed troops. “Shades of Katrina emanate from the descriptions of "anarchy" engulfing the streets. Remember the Superdome, the "looting," the alleged explosion of mayhem? The media conjured images of death and destruction with voyeuristic zeal, while curating the stories to fit a prevailing narrative of savagery and social breakdown. Sharp criticism eventually emerged, too late, to debunk the initial portrayals of lawlessness as distortions, colored by latent anxieties about how black people might act in the absence of white domination. ” (http://www.

There is a frightening lesson to be learned here. During natural disasters, the element of violence is mainly introduced by the heavily armed soldiers whom governments send to the scene of devastation-- in the case of Katrina, long before they sent any help for the victims. Reports of violence are often manufactured by angry persons, by haters, or persons terribly scared who are constantly expecting violence--hoping perhaps for an opportunity to be violent themselves. In Haiti too complaints have been heard that the US is preventing relief supplies from entering the country by giving preference to flights bringing in troops over flights bringing in relief supplies.

Violence is not primarily introduced by the victims of the disasters but by the heavily armed troops. Governments send in their soldiers, allegedly to prevent violence, but they actually are the most violent actors. Governments, whom we expect to preserve the peace, are often its greatest enemies. Its is they who introduce heavily armed men and women and promote the possibility of mayhem.

Iraq was a violent country to be sure under Saddam Hussein. But the damage he did to the Iraqi people pales besides the loss of life inflicted by allied troops. The same is true in Afghanistan. When will our government learn that war does not promote peace and killing does not save lives?