The ladder of failure towering over the inundated deprivation of New Orleans is jammed with bodies. An indictment against humanity hangs from every rung. The social dregs too stupid, too wasted, or too vicious to flee the city with nearly a week’s worth of advance warning; the local authorities, too paralyzed to stop a cascade of barbarity before it spiraled out of control; the mayor, cracked and broken and raving over midnight radio; the feds, struggling to establish command and control while the true victims, those too sick or too old or too young to escape, watch as predators and mobs eclipse their future.
The ladder of failure blots out the sun, and our illusions — about American urban togetherness, about disaster management, about the thickness of that line between adversity and apocalypse — wink out with it. New Orleans ranks number eight on the list of most dangerous American cities, behind metropolises like Detroit, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. Among populations of a half million, one can add Baltimore, Dallas, Philadelphia, Houston, and Phoenix to the list. The center that does not hold in New Orleans has been rotting away for years, along with the other pillars of order propping up our other, more violent cities. And any mass disaster that hits even one of them in the way New Orleans has been hit will unleash identical forces in near-identical ways.
A lot of social phenomena can be decried, and a raft of hopeful and expensive solutions sailed down the Mississippi or the Potomac or one of any number of rivers. But it is the lot of cities to host the poorest and most hardened of citizens, those most accustomed and most disposed to violence, those with the least stake in the sustenance of public order and the safety of their fellow man. What is true of ghettoes in Europe and favelas in Brazil and the corrugated megashanties lining the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa is true of the cracked-out ruins of Baltimore and the wretched remains of once-thriving downtowns of the postindustrial Rust Belt: the breakdown of civilization which happens day in and day out in dribs and drabs of murder and thuggery can no longer be swept under the rug or held back with sandbags or retreated from to the higher ground of higher rents and higher fences.
WE MUST UNACCUSTOM ourselves to the idea of major cities as sinkholes to be skirted. Like everything else, the barbarification of urban America is a national security issue — because, like everything else, at is core national security is an issue of law and order. Americans — the privileged and the disaffected alike — can endure great pressures, and retain a noble spirit. But the suddenness of a breakdown in infrastructure that strips a city’s people of drinking water, electricity, and security is sufficient to break the levee that keeps police in place instead of soldiers.
It is too late to prevent that damage from being done in, done to, New Orleans. But it is not too late — yet — to galvanize Homeland Security. It’s not too late to remind some that a vast influx of illegal immigrants will only exacerbate an already dangerous propertyless, unenfranchised underclass, nor is it too late to remind others that we can no longer afford to leave Americans already here to sink or swim, en masse, on their own. The implications of New Orleans reach to every corner of American domestic policy. Unfortunate as it is, the challenge of our time is to confront and repulse the fear and consequence of random catastrophe. Never before has it been easier to touch one off by man-made means, and, now, as New Orleans has shown us, we appear singularly unprepared to deal with the human effects of disorder. Evacuation plans may work just as well in the case of a sudden attack as those that removed most people from harm’s way long before Katrina made landfall — but in every case, some will remain behind. Some will stay out of the kind of weakness that merits sympathy, others not — but the loss, the very real and momentous loss of a major city, will remain.
LOST WITH IT WILL BE a tentpole of social sanity. The sound of the Mayor of New Orleans descending into sobs and profanity hurts in a way that casualties and destruction do not. The possibility that the Governor of Louisiana no longer knows what day it is sends a ribbon of fear up the spine. Things coming out of people’s mouths give off the flat shock of scenes out of zombie movies, out of Stephen King’s monumental end-times novel The Stand — cops telling tourists to “go to hell,” state representatives insisting “this is not a game,” congressional representatives announcing their shame for America. The local violence — the rapes, the beatings, the sniping at rescue trucks and helicopters — has already been catalogued in haunting detail; what lingers is the otherworldly closeness one feels to the unhinged and worsening doom that has been the subject of American pop fantasy and fetish in novels and movies since Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Night of the Living Dead. Stepping into that psychic world will transfix and traumatize the national conscience at a time when its focus and discipline is needed most.
And that, more so than ten billions of emergency relief dollars, than four months of emptiness in New Orleans or tens of thousands of National Guards’ deployment in the streets of their own country, is something we cannot afford.