How Katrina Will Affect Europe

America has been hit by a major natural disaster, the likes of which are simply unimaginable in Europe. Imagine a category 5 hurricane (the highest possible category) wrecking an area half the size of France (or Germany), thereby submerging and completely destroying a city the size of Marseille (or Cologne) including many, many other towns and villages. I wonder whether this would not lead to a temporary breakdown of law and order in France (or Germany) and whether unprecedented large scale rioting by the so-called “underpriviliged” would not follow. Imagine the international media subsequently focusing on “the poor,” implicitly suggesting that the government in Paris (or Berlin) has not responded adequately during the first days following the disaster because it consists of “racists” who “do not care” about the poor and prefer to wage war in Iraq. That, however, is the general impression being conveyed in Europe.

[inline:01]If the American government failed New Orleans, it is less because it did not immediately respond but because the levees protecting a city below sea level were not strong and high enough to withstand a hurricane exceeding category 3. The fact that the Big Easy could be hit by a category 4 was foreseeable. I was in the U.S. exactly one year ago, in September 2004, when New Orleans barely escaped hurricanes George and Ivan. Though only categories 3, both George and Ivan were at certain moments expected to grow into category 4 hurricanes. They both made landfall not far from New Orleans, while George was supposed to come straight at New Orleans but at the last minute it turned.  Suppose the other George – W in Washington – had taken the warning of George – the hurricane – and begun major infrastructure works on the New Orleans levees, would these have been completed 11 months later and have saved New Orleans today? If so, George Bush is to be blamed, but so are Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin, the one who is so “pissed” with Dubya today.

The only lesson to be drawn from the disaster is that people who live below sea level and count on the state for safety have been naive. This applies to the poor, the middle classes and  the rich. And it applies for governments of whatever political affiliation. The levees were already in bad shape during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Bush Senior. Today people stuck in New Orleans are experiencing that the state that yesterday had enough resources to tax all, today “has not enough resources to save all.”

Once again, the state is the god that fails its people. Some, however, like a certain petty green German minister, will never admit that the state can be a failing god. Instead they twist scientific data to blame a political adversary like George Bush because he has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, thereby causing global warming which, according to this German minister, causes hurricanes. The statement is scientific nonsense because there were only half as many category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the period 1971-2004 as in the period 1941-1970. It was the levees, stupid, not the climate.

Others see the hand of God in the catastrophe that has befallen America. When last December a tsunami hit Thailand this was caused, some said, by the wrath of God over the sex tourism of perverted Europeans in Phuket. Now some point out that Katrina hit New Orleans just when, from 31 August to 5 September, homosexuals were set to celebrate the Southern Decadence Festival in town. Mayor Nagin had even issued an official proclamation welcoming “the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, and the millions of dollars in economic impact” that they were going to bring to his city. He will sure need these millions now, since Katrina decided on 29 August that there was not going to be a “decadent festival” in his town apart from the Big Easy looting spree.

The opinion that Katrina is “evidence that the God of the Bible exists and wants to share his truth with man” may be an opinion of “nuts and bigots” but is it nuttier than the opinion of the German minister and others who blame global warming? In any case it is the kind of opinion that starts Europeans sniggering because such ideas are said only to exist in America, not in sophisticated Europe. Europeans, however, have their own kind of sick people, those who are “joyful”  because they consider Katrina to be “a form of balancing justice for that which the [Americans] have done to others through their war in Iraq.” Indeed, there are two kinds of nutters: those who rejoice because they think the corpses they see on television are decadent gays and those who feel “joy and sympathy beat[ing] simultaneously in [their] chest” because they think the dead are Bush voters.

While the former group can be found in some fringe circles in the U.S. the latter are easy to find in the European press. You need not look far to find them. They also tend to be the appeasers of Muslim fundamentalists. Now they are echoing radicals such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the number two of al-Qaeda. Here, however, the two extremes meet because Zarqawi claims that Katrina is… the wrath of the Almighty, while others have even made “soldier Katrina” a member of al-Qaeda.

Turning Inwards

Having worked in journalism for two decades I know that perception is more powerful than reality. A first perception conveyed by the succession of television images to Americans, Europeans, islamist fundamentalists, indeed to the entire world, is that America is unable to defend its shores against hostile forces. It does not matter that America was up against the forces of nature rather than a political enemy. Television commentators invariably describe large areas of Louisiana and Mississippi today as resembling a "war zone" and refer to images of Black Hawks hovering over New Orleans as scenes resembling "Baghdad". A second perception is that America is short of rescue helicopters, guardsmen and soldiers because Washington assigned the bulk of its army to a war halfway around the globe. It does not matter that the entire army, if it had been in Louisiana on the eve of disaster, would not have been able to stop Katrina either. Supposedly it could have marched to the Gulf of Mexico to stop the waves. Katrina, however, would not have been impressed, as the sea was not impressed by King Canute a thousand years ago. If more troops had been in the U.S., would the government have been able to respond more adequately in the days immediately following the catastrophe? I doubt it.

However, the perception that what has happened would not have happened if it had not been for Bush and Iraq will prevail. People will seek a scapegoat because they cannot cope with the idea that the state might fail them - this god that even freedom loving Americans expect to be infallible. If the state has not failed them, then the President must have. The fallout of the hurricane is bound to land on George W. Bush's head. Katrina may well signal the collapse of the Bush presidency. Bush’s image has been severely tarnished, as has the superpower image of the United States. Most of all perhaps in America itself. “The scapegoating has begun. It will be deadly serious. The stakes are the highest. The ultimate objective will be to break the Bush presidency. Katrina and ‘Who Lost New Orleans?’ will be as pivotal to Bush’s second term as 9-11 was to his first,” Pat Buchanan wrote in his recent column.
“Bush’s priorities are about to be challenged, and Katrina will turn America’s eyes inward, even as the crisis on the Mexican border is turning America’s attention away from the Syrian border. The antiwar movement has a new argument: What in Iraq is more important than Mississippi and Louisiana? As the cost of the disaster mounts, the questions will tumble, one upon the other: Can we afford both Iraq and resurrecting New Orleans and the Gulf? Which comes first?”
As a European exasperated with the free-riding mentality of the Europeans, which dates back to the Cold War years when Europe huddled under the American umbrella whilst letting the U.S. pay for its defense, I have always understood (without agreeing however) why some Americans favour isolationism. As a European I cannot agree because I realise full well that we need America more than it needs us. I fear that Katrina has dealt America a blow that will turn it inwards more quickly than Europeans realise. In the end Katrina might become a bigger disaster for Europe (and the rest of the world) than for America. It Katrina is the wrath of God, it is for Europe that the bell tolls.