Saturday, August 29, 2009


Before reading the new book Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, I had thought of the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina mainly as an example of monumental incompetence. But this book made me realize that the government was not merely incompetent. In some ways, it was brutally efficient.

Zeitoun tells the true story of a Syrian-American painting contractor who stayed behind during and after the hurricane, using an old canoe to help rescue people and feed stranded animals. He finds great meaning and purpose in these activities, which is probably what caused him to remain even after it became clear that he probably should finally leave New Orleans and re-join his family, who had evacuated before the hurricane hit. The nightmare that followed revealed that while Homeland Security was not doing a terribly effective job in picking up stranded victims, getting them to safety or caring for them in the Superdome, it managed to put together a pretty mean prison, based on the Guantanamo model, to incarcerate suspected looters and terrorists.

Sometimes it takes a simple story about one person to drive home much larger points. For example, that a military model may not be the most appropriate way to deal with a humanitarian crisis. For another example, that we should never put aside fundamental constitutional rights such as reasonable bail, and the right to counsel, even during a crisis. When the government ignores these rights, and assumes the power to lock people up indiscriminately and indefinitely, all of us have lost the most basic of freedoms that this country was founded to protect.

We need to record and remember these stories so that we can try to prevent these kinds of abuses from occurring again.

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