But What About the Snipers?

All the vaguely sane world understands that the poor of New Orleans, whether because of their race or their class, got the worst of it.
But, someone might say, what about the snipers? Looting food, ok, looting stores, well, that’s a crime against property, not people, but shooting at rescue helicopters? Blocking public hospital evacuations?
Could anything be lower?

Poverty isn’t known to bring out the best in people, and the worst in people can, of course, weaken sympathy for them. Should we sympathize with some poor victims of New Orleans, but not others? Are there Good Victims and Bad Victims? Can you tell who’s who?

Without damning or excusing people we know nothing about, it might be worth looking at possible reasons for their actions. Sniping is quite unlike like robbery or rape in that the sniper doesn’t get anything from it. This isn’t ordinary crime. The last thing a robber or rapist or junkie would want to do is shoot at hospital evacuation helicopters, something guaranteed to bring more police and troops into the area. In short, criminals ordinarily don’t want to call attention to themselves.

What actually happened? The rescue professionals found themselves utterly incapable of saving everyone. As all their training requires, they decided to practice that favorite of hospital shows, triage. Normally, triage means saving the very worst off first, and hoping to save the others later. In this case, it turned out to mean leaving the others die, and saving some of the very worst off: there were likely others, dying in attics, unknown and unheard, just as badly off. It meant saving, for instance, critically ill hospital patients, people whose condition and location were known, and who had to be among the worst off. The rescuers workers could feel they were doing good, but their efforts were not solving the problem. That you can’t make a serious attempt to help 80,000 victims with a few helicopters, winching up one person at a time, this was nothing the rescuers could affect; it was not worth thinking about.

But the other people, the ones the helicopters had to pass over, the abandoned, I’ll bet they were thinking about it. Maybe – oh, very likely – they were wondering what to do.

So, again, what actually happened? Because there was shooting, the hospital patients could not be evacuated. Though the efforts of the rescuers were heroic, the scale of the rescue was pathetic, and on the way to becoming more pathetic still. One thing, I think, was certain and obvious. The people who really could help, the Federal Government and Bush’s bureaucrats, at least some of those people with their formal requests and their triage procedures and their professionalism, and some of the rich, some of the powerful – these people wanted the helicopter evacuations to work. This half-ass effort was their only demonstration of compassionate competence. If the rescues failed, those responsible would have nothing, not one little bit of success, to show the world. There would be no containing the outrage, no damage control. The humanitarian disaster would produce a political disaster.

Now suppose you were a pissed-off thug living in filthy water, with the dead floating by, with crying, dying, frightened, hopeless victims all around you. You might fire on a helicopter just to make it clear that being left to rot was not acceptable. Or, if you were calm enough to think things through, you might ask yourself: what leverage do I have? What do those who have power over thousands of helicopters and rescue craft, over hundreds of thousands of rescuers – those smug assholes asleep at the wheel – what do they want that I can deny them?

Just one thing, to me anyway, comes to mind: the snipers could deny Bush and his minions their face-saving operation, their little bit of success, their triage. The federal authorities would do anything to save some people. They would even get off their asses and send in troops, massive military convoys, not fast, because it was too late for that, but finally. And with those convoys would come – this too was clear, wasn’t it? – massive aid, massive rescues, a massive effort to save, not a few victims, not the cosmetic cases, but everyone. Or at least, from the standpoint of an ignored victim, blocking the helicopter evacuations was the only thing that might bring this result. If there was anything any lone thug up to his knees in filthy water could do, this would be it. Let the helicopter evacuations proceed, useful to a very few, and what could reasonably be expected? That real massive help would take much longer to come, because there would be less outrage, less desperation, from the comfortable people deciding who should live or die.
The choice of the Bush administration was to save a few, to keep their own peculiar sense of proportion: moving heaven and earth to kill Arabs is one thing, moving heaven and earth to save a bunch of welfare cases is quite another. Triage was a part of business as usual, what Maureen Dowd described as “a chilling lack of empathy combined with a stunning lack of efficiency“.

The choice of the snipers was to undo this triage, this business as usual: all would be saved, or none. Maybe the victims thought they too should have some say in who lived and who died. Maybe they thought that triage was only as legitimate as the need for it: was this really the best that America could do?

Would this make you take aim at a rescue helicopter? You don’t know; you weren’t standing in that water. Were any of the snipers thinking anything like what I’ve suggested? And if they were, would that be any kind of excuse? You don’t know and neither do I.

I do know the shootings loomed large among the reasons that the troops finally got moving, bringing with them the first massive relief operations. If anyone adopted the strategy I imagined, it seems to have worked. I also know that much is permitted to people fighting for their lives, and the lives of others.

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. This fall CounterPunch/AK Press will publish Neumann’s new book, The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at: mneumann@trentu.ca.




We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org (the “Website”).

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005


Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at mneumann@live.com