By Victor Davis Hanson
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and military historian at the Hoover
Institution, Stanford University.
"In peace and prosperity states and individuals have better sentiments,
because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious
necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so
proves a rough master that brings most men's characters to a level with
So the historian Thucydides explained, some 2,400 years ago, the grotesque
rampages during a revolution on the island of Corfu.
Arson, looting, shooting at helicopters, random murder, gang rape and
stampede supposedly only occur elsewhere -in Baghdad or Rwanda, as if
Americans are exempt from the frailty of culture simply because we live in
the United States.
We are not, as we saw in New Orleans. And when the protocols of American
civilization vanished through storm and flood, the devolution to our
instinctual savagery proved only minutes away.
Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina and the breaching of the Lake Pontchartrain
levees above New Orleans ushered in not one, but successive storms of human
and natural brutality.
First, we pressed nature one too many times. America forgot that there are
very few cities extant on the planet that are below sea level. And to add to
that, New Orleans is positioned on a gale-prone coast, aside the delta of
one of the largest rivers in the world, and at the mercy of a huge lake
damned right above the city.
That New Orleans heretofore had not experienced ruin in the manner of a
swampy Venice or Naples beneath Mt. Vesuvius was the real miracle.
But besides topographical peril, New Orleans suffers from an ossified
Louisianan political culture that has not evolved all that much from the
crass demagoguery of Huey Long of the 1930s. The party machine's reason to
be is providing exemptions for the very wealthy and subsidies for the
dependent poor. We saw the dividends of this old "every man a king" politics
in the scapegoating by paralyzed public officials.
The clueless mayor of New Orleans, who initially hesitated over federal
requests to evacuate the entire city, was reduced to expletive-filled rants
as hundreds of empty public buses sat idle. The teary governor of Louisiana
whined mostly about the federal government. Meanwhile Sen. Mary Landrieu
railed at the president: "I might likely have to punch him -literally."
This sad trio proved how fortunate New York was to have a Rudy Giuliani on
Sept. 11, or Los Angeles a Richard Riordan in time of earthquake.
Although millions of others in nearby ravaged Mississippi rebounded without
much violence, many in a densely populated, unassimilated and poor urban
African-American population -one largely ignored by whites and manipulated
by racial demagogues - chose to stay or were left behind in a submerged New
Yet the stranded somehow assumed that government services could provide
instant succor at ground zero of a biblical catastrophe. When such agencies
could not, looters stole appliances (despite having no electricity). With
little food, some filched liquor. In the midst of water everywhere,
arsonists managed to ignite a mall. With roads impassable, others still
roamed the city widely to rape women and shoot at police.
In response, Jesse Jackson jetted in not to organize self-help brigades but
only to inflame by calling the mayhem "the hull of a slave ship." Civil
Rights activist Randall Robinson, without a shred of evidence, immediately
alleged - and later retracted - charges of cannibalism: "(B)lack hurricane
victims in New Orleans have begun eating corpses to survive."
We are also in a controversial war. So there were more political storms to
come -one of cynically manipulating human misery to tar George Bush.
Assorted experts have assured the public that there were plenty of National
Guardsmen available in the area, that hurricanes in recent years in fact
have not been as frequent as earlier in the century and that upkeep of
recently reinforced dikes was adequately funded.
No matter. Partisans from Robert Kennedy Jr. to Sidney Blumenthal charged
that global warming or the Iraq war or inadequate environmental legislation
or the president himself was the cause of the thousands of deaths. Michael
Moore and Cindy Sheehan, of course, screamed as well to reclaim their lost
It did not end even there. A few abroad could not resist expressing delight
at the misery of the world's hyperpower. A Kuwaiti official Muhammad Yousef
Al-Mlaifi, director of a state research center, also cited superhuman
retribution. Now safe from Saddam and with oil sky high, he assured his
former American saviors that Allah was rendering retribution to us infidels.
Jurgen Trittin, Germany's environmental minister -without memory of
Americans eliminating German Nazism, saving Berlin from starvation, keeping
the Red Army out of Western Europe and lobbying for German unification
-preened that the ruination of New Orleans was duly earned for our neglect
of the global atmosphere. This was from a government that counts on
exporting thousands of its luxury gas-guzzling Mercedes, Audis and BMWs to
the United States.
We could have weathered one storm, but four or five natural and human
tempests all at once reduced us to abject calamity over New Orleans
-bringing "men's characters to a level with their fortunes."