Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Executioner's Job

[Originally published at on Dec 19, 2005]

As the year comes to an end, in less than two weeks, media outlets will flood us with clips and stills of the most memorable moments of 2005. Among the images of the war in Iraq with its daily dose of IED attacks on soldiers and civilians alike, gas station marquees showing prices of $2.50 and up, health officials in hazmat suits in poultry farms, and the devastation brought about by a record hurricane season aided by political incompetence and/or cronyism, one image, rather one clip, stands in my mind heads and shoulders above the rest in its ability to capture the State of the Union and the essence of 2005: President Bush, in a hangar protected from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, uttering this ominous reminder of his chronic and criminal incompetence as Chief of the Executive of the United States: Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job!"

The images that were streaming last Thursday night on my TV set, a series of consecutive documentaries devoted to Hurricane Katrina, served as unmistakable proof of the President's incompetence, and of his unpreparedness to lead the relief effort to the city and the people of New Orleans, parched, weakened, and dying as they were for days on end following the passage of one of the most devastating hurricanes in recorded history. For days, the abandoned citizenry of New Orleans lived on or under bridges, in improvised and/or unauthorized shelters, lacking all kind of essentials: little or no drinking water, little food, no toiletries, no water, no electricity, and lack of access to medical care as most hospitals and staff were striving to keep their heads almost literally above water. When some of New Orleans least fortunate sons and daughters, plunged into despair by their government's dereliction of duty, resorted to looting abandoned stores for toothpaste, soap, and deodorant for themselves, and diapers and formula for their infants, even showing their loot to understanding police officers, they were bundled by the President and the media with those who were stealing electronics. The President, conspicuously absent in the first 48 hours of the aftermath of Katrina's devastation, finally appeared with his trademark smirk, to declare that he would restore order to the city. He would do so not by making sure that the Louisiana National Guard, much of which was serving in Iraq, would bring aid to the people of New Orleans; rather, his focus was on bringing in the military to help stop the looting.

After the conditions at the Superdome, the designated shelter of last resort, had deteriorated from simply unsanitary to unfit for men or beast, people started flocking to the Convention Center. Some twenty-four hours after news organizations had started showing footage of people amassing at the Convention Center, Brownie", busy as he was doing a heck of a job, publicly declared his ignorance that the Convention Center had become an improvised shelter for thousand of displaced residents, for the benefit of incredulous reporters and viewers alike. Naturally, even with the Presidents resounding vote of confidence only a few hours old, Brownie" had to be recalled from Louisiana to Washington, where he was given a weekend to prepare his resignation from his position at FEMA and to start polishing his fantastic résumé, in order to return him to the safer confines of organizations such as the International Arabian Horse Association, which helped him build the impressive set of qualifications that earned him his directorship at FEMA.

Just a few days ago, the New York Times published a scathing warning on the imminent death of the city of New Orleans, the same city that the President vowed to rebuild higher and better in a famously choreographed speech from a deserted and eerily illuminated Jackson Square, back in September. In that same speech, the President said "there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans. One need not imagine America without New Orleans, because reality has already trumped imagination: As of today, there is no New Orleans, at least not as it used to be, and certainly not higher and better as the President vouched it would be. Worse yet, according to the NY Times, there seems to be no political will to help New Orleans and its citizens get back on their feet. Too expensive, we are told (though we have an apparently endless supply of money to finance tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, to wage wars in foreign lands and to fund the ensuing nation-building efforts.) And so it is that one of the great cities of our nation is on the verge of virtual extinction.

As the images of devastation and criminal dereliction kept running on my TV set, the words Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job!" kept echoing in my mind. How could anyone make such a patently ridiculous statement, in spite of all evidence to the contrary? Even coming from a president as disconnected from reality as this one, this was too ridiculous. Then it hit me: In the five years of Bush's reign, his administration has displayed a historically low regard for the function of government in society. We have seen an unprecedented determination to replace government, particularly at its most efficient, with private sector entities (even in the military), and with the work of faith-based organizations. In a Machiavellian example of circular logic, most federal agencies have seen their resources slashed, making it harder for them to function, thereby making it easier to prove that government is usually incapable of providing results and facilitating the diversion of public funds to private entities, with those closest to the president and its allies standing to make the biggest gains. Under George Bush II, presidential appointments have too often cast inept characters in position of the highest responsibility, with a clear predilection for docile loyalty over proven competence. Knowing this, we can reevaluate what happened to New Orleans and conclude that it was not by accident. Perhaps we should assume that when the President told Brownie that he was doing heck of a job, he really meant it.
A heck of a job: the job of executioner.

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