Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Why the time for the blame game is now

Well, actually, it's not a game. But it's pretty damn important we figure out exactly what went wrong, what was not done, and what could have been done better. And we need to do that while people are still upset enough to do something to make sure those problems are fixed.

Something sure as hell needs to be fixed. Maybe lots of things need to be fixed. And to do that we need to assign blame. It's nothing personal.

Also, this is fresh in our memory. We should not forget the human face of things going catastrophically wrong. We should not forget, or become emotionally dead to the fact, that a great city has been physically destroyed and its inhabitants dispersed, possibly never to return. An unknown number of people have died--many, maybe most, because of avoidable mistakes. If we wait and immerse the nation for six months in the poisonous electronic soup of Fox News, enough people will be saying shit happens, cities get destroyed, so what--let's get back to celebrity trials or who Brad is divorcing now.

It is worth noting, in passing (nothing new, of course), that the people who are saying now is not the time for blame are not altogether honorable in that insistence, inasmuch as they they are fully engaged in blame themselves--of local officials-- which in their eyes apparently does not fall under the heading of blame. Example:
I turned on the TV Monday night and in less than a minute encountered the sliminess of Joe Scarborough up to his hip waders in an unusually oily and toxic blame project (not quite at the mutagenic smoke-and-fumes superfund level of Fox, but still what you might call a neural biohazard) directed at the mayor of New Orleans the very next breath after Joe said we should put aside partisanship and blame. The very next breath. I turned the TV off again. I have had enough.

So how should we assign blame?

First, we ought to ask if the disaster could have been prevented. I think the answer is yes. Surely nobody who believes in American engineering and can-do problem-solving would be so defeatist as to believe that we can't do as well as the Dutch in building levees. Surely nobody thinks we are totally helpless to preserve the marshlands that once protected the city. Many really smart people have for years been proposing both environmental and engineering measures that, if fully carried out, would have left the city intact after a category 5 hurricane.

What do these proposed measures have in common? Two things. They are costly, and they are opposed by the conservatives who control federal spending, and who want to drown government (except wartime government) in the bathtub, kinda like New Orleans got drowned. Maybe that's what Grover Norquist really meant. Drown government. Drown cities. He's the man who invented the doctrine let the cat out of the bag--you'll have to decide for yourselves if that's what he meant.

But I digress--now that we can see what was at stake, if levees and protective marshes cost ten billion dollars, we would say that's a heckuva bargain. So in assigning blame, try--try just as hard as you can-- to imagine the response of the current House of Representatives, Senate, and President to a request (before this disaster) for 10 billion dollars to protect New Orleans. If you can't imagine a favorable response from such people, no matter how hard you try, you are, at least, still sane. As recent history shows, instead of the Corps of Engineers getting billions, they did not even get the $105 million they requested for levee maintenance. It got cut to $40 million. That money was needed for a $400 million dollar bridge to an uninhabited, but nevertheless apparently Republican, island in Alaska.

It's not like we can't afford to spend billions. Look at Iraq. Look at Halliburton contracts. Look at what we are going to dole out to Bechtel and Halliburton and the other favored no-bid contractors to rebuild New Orleans now. Apparently FEMA is already hiring Blackwater mercenaries for combat duty in New Orleans. So we can afford the money. We just couldn't afford what we needed when we needed it. By "we" I mean, well, you know who. The guy who does not want to play blame games.

Second, given the initial mistake, which we will surely now correct, of not protecting the city with adequate levees, we have to ask what could have been done to minimize the human toll of the inevitable flood. Who had the resources to deal with it? Who had the mission, assigned by the laws and directives creating the Homeland Security apparatus, of taking charge in a catastrophe which overwhelms local resources? Who did everybody presume had a plan? Who did not have such a plan, despite the billions spent on homeland security since 9/11?

Who was presumed, under Homeland Security's National Response Plan, to be in charge. Well, as it happens, in that plan, we learn that "The president leads the nation in responding effectively and ensuring the necessary resources are applied quickly and efficiently."

Wow, there's your problem, right there. I don't think we need to pursue the blame game any further.

Well, actually, that's not the whole truth. But that's the essence of the problem. Once we have that truth firmly in mind, we can start looking at specific failures, like those of the sad clowns like Chertoff and the clueless horse-lawyer who has now duly and loyally taken the bullet for his bosses; they, of course, hoping that will be the end of it, and he, no doubt, hoping against hope, that they will reward him with white-collar employment. Somewhere. Eventually.

Then we can start exploring the vastness of the non-plan Chertoff's agency squandered billions on.

Oh, yeah, I think the mayor and the governor had no plan either. Having one would have helped, though I don't see how that alone could have been enough. But I think whoever replaces them--and they deserve replacement--should make sure the city and state does indeed prepare to do better just in case the feds fail to stop another disaster.

And if we don't soon turn the malignant plutocrats and heartless psychopaths and mad-dog religious extremists running the country out of office, we will all need our own personal disaster plans.

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