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Mamoon Alabbasi argues that, five years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the principal lesson from
that disaster – the need to put humanity above prejudice and greed – has still not been learnt, and greed and inhumanity can be found in the responses to the Haiti earthquake and the Pakistan floods.
”…those who claim to be fighting extremism have come to embody everything that extremism stands for but the name. They, with the help of a powerful media, are so preoccupied with differences of colour, race and faith that they have lost sight of people's humanity.”
Five years after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans – a natural disaster with unnatural responses – led to the death of an estimated 1,800 people and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of others, the lesson has not yet been learned.
While US President Barack Obama acknowledged that the disaster was "a man-made catastrophe – a shameful breakdown in government that left countless men, women and children abandoned and alone" – he still missed the point, not only in New Orleans, but also in earthquake-wrecked Haiti and flood-hit Pakistan.
The devastating outcome of the New Orleans catastrophe was not a case of mere government mismanagement, as some have put it, nor were the people of New Orleans to blame, as others bizarrely like to think. A number of factors played a part, all betraying sinister causes which in combination led to such outcome we all know.
Witness accounts show that there was almost a sense of official contempt for the people of New Orleans that often went beyond criminal negligence. Some residents felt that they were being treated like enemies in a war zone and not as Americans in distress.
Those who remained, whether by choice or for lacking an option, were automatically perceived as "looters", and "looting" itself became the ultimate crime, second only maybe to terrorism. People who did not or could not (and in some cases were not allowed to) leave the scene were being shot at for daring to eat food from deserted shops just to stay alive.
Protecting businesses has become more important than saving lives, even though most of the products in those shops were doomed to destruction by the rising level of water that covered most of the city. Symbolically, it looked like a determination to protect the “market” even when trade has ceased, where the “capital” can perish as long as it does not reach the people in need.
But things went beyond shooting at suspected "looters" and treating people as if they were guilty of crimes that they were not even aware of. There was a sense of detachment from the suffering of those who were in urgent need of drinking water. There were many reported instances where the security forces had the opportunity to help, but preferred to do nothing or, worse, watch.
Even today, there is still little mention of the poor infrastructure of New Orleans which magnified the effect of the hurricane. Apart from alternative media outlets such as ‘Democracy Now!’ and others, even less mention is given to those who might be held responsible.
As in Haiti, the impact of natural disasters would have been tremendously less had the proper infrastructure been in place. And as in Haiti, successive US government policies share a large portion of the blame.
Toppling democracy in Haiti and placing a US-friendly government there meant American interests would be insured, not those of the Haitian people. But where was the interest of the American people in New Orleans?
When interviewing some of the audience of a moving play last year – ‘Katrina’ by Jonathan Holmes (which was based on the accounts of six witnesses from New Orleans) – I discovered that people were shocked that such things happened to Americans. They were not at all surprised that the US authorities would act in such a manner – but surely not against their own people
Among the many sad ironies in this bitter ordeal is the link to Iraq and God, two concepts that are now strongly intertwined in English (and Arabic) language usage, thanks to former US President George Bush.
One irony is that the US troops serving in Iraq would have better served their country and people had they been present within their national borders when they were most needed, instead of outstaying their 'unwelcome' in Iraq.
Another irony is that while some Evangelicals were preaching that the people of New Orleans got what they deserved as a punishment from God, other Christian fundamentalists were selling the Iraq war as the fulfilment of the wishes of God. So, the logic went that American soldiers invaded Iraq in a “mission” or a “vision” to carry out God's work there, while that same God personally got down to business in New Orleans.
Yet the resilient people of New Orleans never lost faith in their own God of hope, despite attempts to hijack Him and despite the fact that the loudest voices protesting against the injustices that had befallen them came from atheists and non-radical believers from the left, who saw the victims as human beings first and foremost.
Among the reasons why natural disasters cause much greater harm than they should is precisely because people fail to see the victims' humanity before and after a catastrophe takes place – before in terms of preparations and sound infrastructure, and after in terms of the speed and method of aid.
Thus, the lessons from Katrina were never learned as can be seen in Haiti and now Pakistan. Some people would rather have millions of lives wrecked in Pakistan than let the Taleban or some extremist-linked or suspected charity anywhere take the credit for helping them. And when aid does come – late as it is – it comes in a bid to outmatch those extremists.
In fact, ironically, even in New Orleans the US authorities had wrongfully detained a Muslim American of Syrian origin, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who had stayed behind to help save lives there, branding him “Taleban” and “Al-Qaeda” when arresting him in his own home.
Yet those who claim to be fighting extremism have come to embody everything that extremism stands for but the name. They, with the help of a powerful media, are so preoccupied with differences of colour, race and faith that they have lost sight of people's humanity.
And some would readily blow their own trumpets by comparing their good selves to the Pakistani Taleban. An odd choice for a benchmark; but as the days progress even that low standard would be hard to live up to.