The Battle of New Orleans

“They’ve given them permission to go down and shoot us.” — Kanye West

“His opinions in no way represent the views of the network.” — NBC

If New Orleans doesn’t radicalize you, what will?

Troops “fresh back from Iraq” are at this moment engaged in “hunting down” people defined as “looters.” An Army Times report described the mission as a struggle to put down “the insurgency in the city.” The only thing to prevent us from describing the Crescent City as Baghdad-on-the-bayou is the thought that Fallujah might be a better analogy, given the scale of destruction.

Breaking metaphorical ranks was a brigadier general’s prediction that the birthplace of jazz is “going to look like Little Somalia.” From Metairie to Mogadishu? Was he preparing the public, and the media, for a Black Hawk Down?

Imagine the reaction if — rather than ordering the National Guard to “shoot to kill” the desperate the angry and the unlucky — the mayor of New Orleans, the governor of Louisiana, or the president of the United States had instead declared that anyone so selfish as to be caught “protecting private property” during a humanitarian crisis would be shot on sight.

Would such an order have made it easier to spot the difference between, say, an oil company manager jacking up the price of gasoline, and a person toting a television out of a flooded store — with nowhere to take it and nowhere to plug it in?

Will the National Guard, using skills acquired in Mosul and Tikrit, now be authorized to “shoot to kill” any price gougers they might encounter? Will they hunt them down?

A senior National Guard spokesman went on TV this weekend to assure America, and Larry King, that “this is not martial law.” No one corrected him.

Meanwhile, those not branded as “looters” are known as “refugees,” as though Rwanda or Bangladesh had spilled into Louisiana. After the Astrodome was designated to receive “refugees” from the Superdome, it took almost two days for the man in charge of the Houston facility to announce that his new occupants would be “free to come and go.” Imagine the meetings that were held while this point remained in doubt.

And then, to continue the exercise in phantasmagoria, imagine the response, were the mayor of Houston to announce that the city would be pleased to continue to provide services for residents of that city’s wealthy River Oaks neighborhood who took “refugees” into their homes, but not otherwise. No mercy, no water.

How long, one wonders, before some New Orleans resident inevitably violates the curfew and goes outdoors in search of food or medicine, only to be identified as a “looter” and gunned down by those troops “fresh back from Iraq”? Or has it already happened? And if so, how often?

Bu what means will the “hunters” discern the difference between the truly vicious and the merely crazed among their prey? After all, is stealing a computer, in a flooded city without basic necessities, let alone electricity, a mark of sanity? Is attempting to commandeer a boat or a truck, in the midst of a total societal breakdown, really irrational behavior, let alone criminal?

The Battle of New Orleans now raging will be fought on several fronts.

There will of course be the battle for the streets, to take them back from the people who were abandoned to die in them. The Secretary of Defense dropped into New Orleans to defer all questions about the military operation to “the authorities,” after complaining with his trademark testiness that he couldn’t hear anything that was being said, “under these conditions.”

Questions that went unasked included: Will U.S. troops withdraw from New Orleans before they withdraw from Iraq? Are senior GOP leaders now privately urging the president to “use” this moment to extricate himself from that other disaster?

There will also be the battle for the “story,” to control the spin on it all. Kanye West may have “departed from the script,” as NBC put it, but rest assured, the media-wide effort to make Katrina a story about looters and the protection of private property is merely the opening salvo. To his immense credit, CNN’s Saturday anchor Tony Harris, who is everything Aaron Brown never was, not only made this point, but hit it hard.

Of course the military occupation of New Orleans has been spun as an effort to protect the innocent and the defenseless from thuggery, to “get the city back under control.”

Having left the people to die in a hurricane (after recommending Greyhound and Amtrak to any of the poor and disabled who wished to evacuate along with the well-to-do), and then having failed to deliver food, water, and medical care, they now wish to “protect” them.

CNN’s Nancy Grace wasted no time in billing the disaster as the world’s biggest “missing persons” story, the Alabama teenager writ large. Why not, it worked so well in Aruba.

The death of Chief Justice Rehnquist didn’t exactly “change the story,” but you had to wonder whether his timely demise didn’t cause champaign to be uncorked in Karl Rove’s office. Rove’s role as story manager was underscored by the fact that he accompanied Bush on his tour of Mississippi and Louisiana.

Then there is the battle to control the relief effort, with FEMA and the corporate media aggressively suggesting that people might want to channel their generosity through the Rev. Pat Robertson’s “Operation Blessing.” (What will they be contributing to, an assassination fund?)

Every out-of-work celebrity in America will be trying to elbow their way past Art Linkletter and Bill Cosby to discuss the tragedy on Larry King Live. Personally, I’m waiting to see Larry’s interview with kanYe West.

The battle to rebuild infrastructure, or to secure contracts as spoils of war, is already well underway, with Halliburton having already launched a massive preemptive strike. Imagine a trench — more of a hog trough, really — stretching from Metairie to Mobile Bay, and running north through the offices of Bob Riley and Haley Barbour (a more Snopesian figure than even Trent Lott).

As for the battle to control the political terrain, to “use” the hurricane and its aftermath, there are many minefields to be crossed. There is talk of disposing of bodies in a mass grave. Will such an event be televised? Will the president attend? Perhaps there should be two mass graves: one for those who perished before his first post-Katrina visit to New Orleans, and one for those who died subsequently.

In an ideal world, the senator from New York who demands “decisive victory in the war on terror,” and the pro-war/pro-death penalty senator from Illinois, would have already shared their thoughts on race, reality and military justice in New Orleans. And while waiting for that to happen, a group of GOP elder statesmen would have walked over to the White House and politely asked the current occupant to “get out of the goddamned way,” or words to that effect, and replaced him with someone like Sen. Chuck Hagel.

A principled, antiwar Republican? Could there be a greater nightmare for Democrats? Not if there were a Robert Kennedy among them, with the guts to say as Bobby did, “Mr. President, stop this war!”

DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, just released a scorching new CD, Way Down Here. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.

He can be reached at: davidvest AT springmail DOT com

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DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, have just released a scorching new CD, Serve Me Right to Shuffle. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.