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Architecture of a Failing State

Posted on: Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Keywords: Emergency Relief, Bush Administration


The Bush Administration's disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina has focused public attention on a dangerous dynamic in the United States. Like few other events in recent memory, Katrina exposed the giant vacuum created by the government's abdication of its essential responsibilities and attempts by corporations, the religious right, and the military to fill that void.

Bush's "Enterprise Zone"

Along the Gulf Coast, reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina quickly became a theatre for Bush's dream economy. Bush suspended taxation in hurricane-hit areas and vowed to pay for reconstruction by cutting existing (read: social) programs. Within two months, House Republicans were pushing to slash food stamp funding by $1billion; cut Medicaid access and benefits, and force another 10 hours of work from families on welfare.1 Bush also announced plans for the country's largest school voucher program: nearly half a million dollars for displaced families to send their children to private schools, including religious schools.2 As right-wing economist Milton Friedman once said, school vouchers "are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system."3

That transition is already quite advanced. By now, many people in the US take it for granted that corporations have replaced government in providing basic services, ranging from health care to utilities to transportation. As services have been transformed from citizens' rights to consumer products, poor people have lost access and more people have become poor as they struggle to pay for health care, child care, and other services once guaranteed by government. As in the Global South, the trend hits women the hardest. That's because women have fewer financial resources to begin with and because women are mainly responsible for meeting their families' basic needs - especially when government stops providing services.

Public Pressure Stops Bush's Corporate Hand-outs

After Hurricane Katrina, Bush awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to companies with close ties to his Administration, including Halliburton (formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney) and Bechtel. Bush also overrode the law requiring these companies to pay the locally prevailing minimum wage to construction workers in the Gulf States. But thanks to public pressure from Labor, Democrats, and progressive groups, the White House was forced to reverse both policies.

Blurring the Line between Church and State

After Hurricane Katrina, more than half a million people took refuge in facilities that churches ran at the request of state governments.4 In Mississippi, one of the biggest relief efforts was organized by Operation Save America (formerly Operation Rescue). The virulently anti-abortion group, whose tactics include clinic blockades and other violence, handed out Bibles and tracts along with food aid while its director preached to evacuees in the organization's shelters. And for the first time ever, the federal government will pay churches for their relief efforts.5,6

Though the line between church and state was perhaps at its blurriest in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the attack on the separation of church and state began when Bush took office in 2000. Since then, Bush's White House, with its prayer breakfasts and Biblical rhetoric, has become emblematic of the integration of religion into the US political system. While the right-wing likes to talk about "culture wars," the fault line in the US today is not between religious and non-religious people, but between advocates of human rights and secular democracy, and fundamentalists who manipulate religion to pursue a reactionary social agenda.

MADRE has always worked with religious people whose commitment to democracy and human rights is informed directly by their faith. In fact, the religious community has been at the forefront of US movements for Abolition and Civil Rights, and peace in Vietnam, Central America, and Iraq. This tradition is an expression of religious ethics, such as non-violence, justice, compassion, and respect for nature; it stands in sharp contrast to fundamentalism, which works to turn arbitrary and absolutist interpretations of religion into public policy. By empowering fundamentalist organizations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Bush Administration both shirked its obligation to provide disaster relief and trampled the line between church and state.

Disaster Relief as Urban Warfare

Since 9/11, Bush has transferred funds, professional staff, and equipment from civil defense to the military. As we now know, that decision turned the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) into an empty husk. Just as importantly, it made the military the only arm of government capable of responding effectively to disaster. "I think we turned the corner [in New Orleans] last Friday," Louisiana Senator David Vitter said in early September. "But the reason we did it —and we need to be clear about this—is because we made it a massive military operation".7

There are individual soldiers who took risks to rescue people after Hurricane Katrina and their efforts should be commended. But there's a fundamental problem with treating disaster relief as a combat mission: combat requires an enemy. In New Orleans, the abandoned survivors of Hurricane Katrina, who were mostly poor people of color, became that enemy. As Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco said of the troops sent to the city directly from Iraq: "They have M-16s and they're locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so, and I expect they will."8

Civilians—whether in New Orleans or Baghdad—should not be the targets of combat operations. That's why we were alarmed to see the US 82nd Airborne patrolling flooded neighborhoods in Louisiana. These are not "first responders," but soldiers who are trained to kill. Members of this division stand accused of torturing prisoners in Iraq and raping a child in Kosovo.9, 10 Like the separation of Church and State, maintaining a distinction between the army and domestic law enforcement is a core principle of democracy - one that should not be sacrificed in the name of fighting terrorism or responding to natural disasters.

Charting a New Course

"Failed state" is a US State Department term usually reserved for impoverished countries that the US targets for military intervention, like Afghanistan, Haiti, and Liberia. But in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it's also a term that resonates with our perception of the US itself: a state that fails to protect its citizens or provide even basic services. Naming and exploring this dynamic enables us to take stock of current conditions in the US so that we can work to change course.

In fact, for many people, Hurricane Katrina opened a space for new kinds of conversation about what kind of country this is and what kind of country we want it to be. As we spend time with family and friends during the holidays, let's continue to engage in these conversations. Let people know that despite all the divisive talk about Red States and Blue States this year, the vast majority of people in the US want to see policies that would challenge the destructive trend that became so visible in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. According to studies by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, more than three-quarters of people in the US want increased health care, education, and Social Security.11 That's just one example of a starting point for conversation that can unite broad sectors of people around better policies.

By Yifat Susskind, Communications Director

 

 


End Notes

New York Times, 10/26/05.
Palm Beach Post, 9/28/05.
http://www.blackcommentator.com/79/79_cover_teachers.html.
Washington Post, 9/27/05.
Washington Post, 9/27/05.
New York Times, 10/27/05.
Scarborough County (MSNBC), 9/7/05.
CNN.com, 9/2/05.
See Human Rights Watch, "Leadership Failure Firsthand Accounts of Torture of Iraqi Detainees by the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division," 9/05.
New York Times, 9/19/00.
Global Views, 2004, p.14.

 

Bush's "Enterprise Zone"

Along the Gulf Coast, reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina quickly became a theatre for Bush's dream economy. Bush suspended taxation in hurricane-hit areas and vowed to pay for reconstruction by cutting existing (read: social) programs. Within two months, House Republicans were pushing to slash food stamp funding by $1billion; cut Medicaid access and benefits, and force another 10 hours of work from families on welfare.1 Bush also announced plans for the country's largest school voucher program: nearly half a million dollars for displaced families to send their children to private schools, including religious schools.2 As right-wing economist Milton Friedman once said, school vouchers "are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system."3

That transition is already quite advanced. By now, many people in the US take it for granted that corporations have replaced government in providing basic services, ranging from health care to utilities to transportation. As services have been transformed from citizens' rights to consumer products, poor people have lost access and more people have become poor as they struggle to pay for health care, child care, and other services once guaranteed by government. As in the Global South, the trend hits women the hardest. That's because women have fewer financial resources to begin with and because women are mainly responsible for meeting their families' basic needs - especially when government stops providing services.

Public Pressure Stops Bush's Corporate Hand-outs

After Hurricane Katrina, Bush awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to companies with close ties to his Administration, including Halliburton (formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney) and Bechtel. Bush also overrode the law requiring these companies to pay the locally prevailing minimum wage to construction workers in the Gulf States. But thanks to public pressure from Labor, Democrats, and progressive groups, the White House was forced to reverse both policies.

Blurring the Line between Church and State

After Hurricane Katrina, more than half a million people took refuge in facilities that churches ran at the request of state governments.4 In Mississippi, one of the biggest relief efforts was organized by Operation Save America (formerly Operation Rescue). The virulently anti-abortion group, whose tactics include clinic blockades and other violence, handed out Bibles and tracts along with food aid while its director preached to evacuees in the organization's shelters. And for the first time ever, the federal government will pay churches for their relief efforts.5,6

Though the line between church and state was perhaps at its blurriest in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the attack on the separation of church and state began when Bush took office in 2000. Since then, Bush's White House, with its prayer breakfasts and Biblical rhetoric, has become emblematic of the integration of religion into the US political system. While the right-wing likes to talk about "culture wars," the fault line in the US today is not between religious and non-religious people, but between advocates of human rights and secular democracy, and fundamentalists who manipulate religion to pursue a reactionary social agenda.

MADRE has always worked with religious people whose commitment to democracy and human rights is informed directly by their faith. In fact, the religious community has been at the forefront of US movements for Abolition and Civil Rights, and peace in Vietnam, Central America, and Iraq. This tradition is an expression of religious ethics, such as non-violence, justice, compassion, and respect for nature; it stands in sharp contrast to fundamentalism, which works to turn arbitrary and absolutist interpretations of religion into public policy. By empowering fundamentalist organizations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Bush Administration both shirked its obligation to provide disaster relief and trampled the line between church and state.

Disaster Relief as Urban Warfare

Since 9/11, Bush has transferred funds, professional staff, and equipment from civil defense to the military. As we now know, that decision turned the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) into an empty husk. Just as importantly, it made the military the only arm of government capable of responding effectively to disaster. "I think we turned the corner [in New Orleans] last Friday," Louisiana Senator David Vitter said in early September. "But the reason we did it —and we need to be clear about this—is because we made it a massive military operation".7

There are individual soldiers who took risks to rescue people after Hurricane Katrina and their efforts should be commended. But there's a fundamental problem with treating disaster relief as a combat mission: combat requires an enemy. In New Orleans, the abandoned survivors of Hurricane Katrina, who were mostly poor people of color, became that enemy. As Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco said of the troops sent to the city directly from Iraq: "They have M-16s and they're locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so, and I expect they will."8

Civilians—whether in New Orleans or Baghdad—should not be the targets of combat operations. That's why we were alarmed to see the US 82nd Airborne patrolling flooded neighborhoods in Louisiana. These are not "first responders," but soldiers who are trained to kill. Members of this division stand accused of torturing prisoners in Iraq and raping a child in Kosovo.9, 10 Like the separation of Church and State, maintaining a distinction between the army and domestic law enforcement is a core principle of democracy - one that should not be sacrificed in the name of fighting terrorism or responding to natural disasters.

Charting a New Course

"Failed state" is a US State Department term usually reserved for impoverished countries that the US targets for military intervention, like Afghanistan, Haiti, and Liberia. But in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it's also a term that resonates with our perception of the US itself: a state that fails to protect its citizens or provide even basic services. Naming and exploring this dynamic enables us to take stock of current conditions in the US so that we can work to change course.

In fact, for many people, Hurricane Katrina opened a space for new kinds of conversation about what kind of country this is and what kind of country we want it to be. As we spend time with family and friends during the holidays, let's continue to engage in these conversations. Let people know that despite all the divisive talk about Red States and Blue States this year, the vast majority of people in the US want to see policies that would challenge the destructive trend that became so visible in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. According to studies by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, more than three-quarters of people in the US want increased health care, education, and Social Security.11 That's just one example of a starting point for conversation that can unite broad sectors of people around better policies.

By Yifat Susskind, Communications Director


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