Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Katrina and the way we view ourselves

I suppose I should say something about Katrina.

What astounds me is the incredulity with which people are viewing the activities of the New Orleans ‘criminal element’. Why is anyone surprised? Did you think that being American means that you do not possess those qualities found in human beings all over the world? Hello? Where there is a break down of law and order, with the attendant severing of the link between action and consequence, people will resort to whatever they can get away with. Why do we shrug our shoulders when we hear of rapes, murders and looting in disaster areas like Darfur, Rwanda and Baghdad, but react with shock when the same happens in America? Human beings are the same everywhere, and will act in the same way when confronted with the same set of circumstances. Also, interesting how the people shooting up the town and looting in New Orleans are referred to as ‘bandits’ and such like, but in Baghdad and elsewhere, they go by the more evocative title of ‘militiamen’.

Some countries have offered assistance to the US. I was touched to see Sri Lanka among their number. This is a country that suffered during the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, and benefited from US help. I was annoyed to discover that no other developing nation had put its hand in its pocket. Yes, Mother Africa, I am talking to you. It is all very well to say that America does not need the money, but what about the American poor? You can donate that money to the American Red Cross. Even if you can only afford $10,000, it is still worth something. It is not OK to just sit there, hand outstretched to take, take, take. When are you going to learn to give? Far from impoverishing you, giving will actually help you, as it can do wonders for your self-esteem. I will not hold my breath, though.

Notice I did not begin this Katrina article by expressing sympathy, and directing ‘thoughts and prayers’ towards all those affected. I take the view that one should expect that of any right-thinking human, and that there is therefore no need to express it. I take against this idea that one must recite out a pre-determined preamble before one can express a view on a particular issue. Eg if you are an imam and there has been a terrorist outrage, Heaven help you if you do not begin your public statement by condemning the bombers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying they should not be condemned. I am saying that it is not for society to choose what words we should speak in any given situation. Such words are little more than ritual genuflection to the sensibilities of our listeners. Perhaps for this reason some may argue that they are necessary.

This brings me to another point. If you have looked up my profile, you will have discovered that I live in England. Over the last eight years, I have noticed a few things in this community. What I want to talk about now is the way we as a society respond to crime. In England, little children go missing every summer. This also happens at other times of the year, but we hear more about it in the summer. Anyway, a child goes missing for a few days, and then the Police find a body. The public then flock there and place bouquets of flowers and ‘soft toys’ at the scene, almost turning it into a shrine. What I have noticed is that there is always a bouquet on which someone has pinned a note with the word ‘Why???’. It always amazes me. What do they mean 'why'? I’ll tell them 'why'. It is because there are evil people in this world who will think nothing of doing something that bad. It is also because as a society we have failed to look out for one another. Perhaps it is also because the Police spend so much time faffing about on issues that have nothing to do with crime prevention and detection.

Crime is the result of a failure in society; in most cases, it is a failure on the part of the individual (ie the criminal), and in addition, there are cases in which the larger society is to blame. Don’t get it twisted, I am not absolving the individual perpetrator of any blame; remember I am no leftie. I am just saying maybe we should look at society and see if we are not in some way failing the victims of crime. Perhaps, rather than ‘why’, the appropriate word to be left at the scene of a tragedy should be that left at the Pont De L’Alma where Diana died: désolée*.

Back to Katrina, some words I am already fed up of hearing: ‘Big Easy’, levee, breach, ‘Third World’, FEMA, and ‘Category 5’.

*For my non-French speaking readers, this word can be translated ‘sorry’.
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