Photograph of Anil Chawla


Author - Anil Chawla

Hurricane Katrina caused extensive destruction in South East USA. Natural disasters happen in every part of the world. Response to such calamities shows the true strength and spirit of a people. Katrina has exposed weakness of USA as a society. The author argues that USA is a societyless state.

The true test of any individual or society or nation comes when it faces adversity. United States of America faced such a test on 29 August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina with wind speeds of more than 100 mph touched ground. Katrina has been called as "a natural disaster of unprecedented proportions for America".

An aerial shot of Hurricane Katrina

Having said that, let us note that the percentage of population which has been affected is less than five or ten per cent of the population of USA. New Orleans, that has been the worst affected, had a population of less than half a million before the disaster struck (484,674 as per 2000 census). USA's population is around 296 million. So, the population of New Orleans is less than 0.2 per cent of the country's population. Given the fact that USA is a developed and rich country, it stands to reason that the country should have had no problems in facing up to an event that affected such a miniscule percentage of its population.

A map of Louisiana state

Compare this with the Tsunami disaster that struck a small poor country like Sri Lanka (along with India and some others) on 26 December 2004. Sri Lanka's population is about 20 million. About 40 per cent of the country's population was affected by Tsunami waves. The number of deaths was much higher in Sri Lanka than in case of the tragedy in South East USA. Yet, Sri Lanka faced the disaster with much more aplomb. In Sri Lanka there was no looting; no rapes; no rotting corpses; and army or police did not have to fire a single shot against civilians on rampage.

Now compare it with the total anarchy that prevailed in New Orleans. A few glimpses:

Rescuers at work

The picture that emerges from the above glimpses is one of sheer neglect and callous insensitivity. There have been strong comments from various quarters about the attitude of President George W Bush and his team. He was vacationing when the crisis occurred and he took it very lightly.

George W Bush enjoys his vacation even as people suffer

It is easy and a bit too tempting to join the chorus of Skin-Bush-Alive (not counting the innumerable unprintable slogans about Bush circulating on the net). While one cannot defend George W Bush, it is important to understand that the malaise is more deep-rooted and will not disappear if George Bush is hanged on the nearest electric pole.

Nobody in India can understand how a rape can occur in a sports stadium packed with 70,000 people. Women in India feel safe when there is a crowd and are afraid only when it is lonely. Temporary camps are routinely set up in India to house persons displaced due to either floods or riots or tsunami or some other calamity. Police protection in such camps is virtually non-existent. Yet, women have never felt unsafe in any such camp. There must be something drastically wrong in a society that cannot remain peaceful and orderly without an omnipresent policeman.

A US military policeman on duty in New Orleans

Americans like to talk about this or that poor country drifting into statelessness. The truth is that their own country has reached the stage of societylessness. Society, as an organic being, has ceased to exist in USA. New Orleans, with its population of less than half a million, is a small town. In any small town in India, everybody seems to know everyone else and while in normal times there may be petty rivalries and quarrels, in times of crisis, the whole town stands up together as one. This did not happen in New Orleans. The looting, ransacking, intimidation, rapes, and murders were the handiwork of citizens of New Orleans. The so-called normal law-abiding citizens had no spirit or willingness to rise up and face the destructive elements within their own brethren. Each one of them abdicated their responsibility as a responsible member of the society. The fiasco at New Orleans would hopefully make Americans realize that there can be a society and a country without a formal state, but a state without a society has a precarious existence.

Every society needs leaders. New Orleans, in particular and USA, in general, have suffered from the total absence of leadership. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has been fuming over what George W Bush did not do. He may well be right. But there are things that Ray Nagin has also failed to do. He failed to provide leadership to his people in this hour of crisis. I saw an aerial photograph of large number of inundated school buses lined up in a yard (given below). Why were these not called up on the day before the hurricane struck to move people out of town? Was it not possible to make teams among people holed up in the Superdome to take up self-defense and policing? Was it not possible to contact, inspire and motivate voluntary agencies across USA to take up relief work? Probably all this sounds too strange in a country where people are held together by the order of law implemented by the state. In most other countries, social bonds and duties are stronger and more important than laws laid down by the state. In times of crisis and adversity, it is these social bonds and duties that help the society survive. In USA there is no society, it is just individuals who tolerate each other to the extent that the policeman in the street bids them to. When there is no policeman, some of these individuals jump at the throats (or groins) of some others, while everyone else just looks away.

An aerial photograph of buses standing in a yard full of water

United States of America must take a critical look at its social bonds and structures. For two centuries or so the values of America have been selfishness and self-centeredness. Religion, as a way of thinking and life, has been dying a slow death in the mainstream of American thought. The classic religious values of compassion, universal brotherhood, love and care, willingness to sacrifice one's pleasures for the other - are essential for the existence of any society. It is these values that seem to have vanished from United States of America. In the absence of any of these humane values, might-is-right or bullyism or ruffianism holds sway, as it happened in the Superdome at New Orleans.

But, one cannot really blame the bullies of New Orleans. They were only doing what America has been doing for the past many decades on the international arena. Unfortunately for USA, the ethos of might-is-right when internalized among her own people leads to results, which are truly terrible.

Hurricane Katrina, in spite of its category five status, would have only been a small blip in the history of USA. But by exposing the collapse of society in USA and by demonstrating her incapability of handling adversity, the hurricane has created circumstances that will influence the progress of world history in the next few decades. USA has too many enemies across the world. While you and I sympathize with the unfortunate people of New Orleans, the enemies of USA are rubbing their hands with glee at having seen a big chink in the armor. They know that a nation without a society cannot face adversity and a country that cannot face adversity is doomed, sooner or later. Many of these enemies of USA predict that USA will meet the same fate as USSR, probably even worse than that. Time alone will prove them either right or wrong.

If the people of USA look at Katrina as a blessing in disguise and see her as an opportunity for them to understand their weaknesses as a society and rebuild the damaged social structure of their country, 29 August 2005 would be remembered as the golden turning point in the history of USA. On the other hand, well, I dread to even imagine that. Please join me in wishing the best to America and her people!

Anil Chawla
6 September 2005

Please write to me your comments about the above article.

If you liked the above article, you may also like to read And yet "we" are less civilised than "them" by S. Gurumurthy.

Us by Cicero

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer (and now a lawyer too) by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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