Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Blame Game

In recent days it has apparently been Republican talking point number one: "We must not play the blame game". I have heard that sentence coming from the President, cabinet officers, Trent Lott, and following a brief loss of the TV remote out of the mouth of Bill O'Reilly on Fox News (good to see that even though FEMA can't get MREs into New Orleans the RNC can get memos to Roger Ailes). Too bad they haven't been taking extending that sentiment to the poor saps they dithered about helping.

Local and national authorities made huge play out of the breakdown in law and order that supposedly followed the flooding in New Orleans- widespread looting for food and supplies (undisputed), widespread looting for consumer goods (well, I saw the same footage of a woman carrying three pairs of sneakers about 80 times on CNN but does that count as widespread?), and rape, murder and robbery in the supposed safe havens of the Superdome and Convention Centre.

The only trouble with the last examples is that while they were widely reported both directly by journalists and by hearsay reports from survivors, police investigating the allegations have yet to unearth any evidence they happened.

From England's Guardian newspaper via Can't Stop The Bleeding:
"There were two babies who had their throats slit. The seven-year-old girl who was raped and murdered in the Superdome. And the corpses laid out amid the excrement in the convention centre.

In a week filled with dreadful scenes of desperation and anger from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina some stories stood out. But as time goes on many remain unsubstantiated and may yet prove to be apocryphal. New Orleans police have been unable to confirm the tale of the raped child, or indeed any of the reports of rapes, in the Superdome and convention centre. New Orleans police chief Eddie Compass said last night: “We don’t have any substantiated rapes. We will investigate if the individuals come forward.”

And while many claim they happened, no witnesses, survivors or survivors’ relatives have come forward. Nor has the source for the story of the murdered babies, or indeed their bodies, been found. And while the floor of the convention centre toilets were indeed covered in excrement, the Guardian found no corpses.

Reports of the complete degradation and violent criminals running rampant in the Superdome suggested a crisis that both hastened the relief effort and demonised those who were stranded. By the end of last week the media in Baton Rouge reported that evacuees from New Orleans were carjacking and that guns and knives were being seized in local shelters where riots were erupting.

The local mayor responded accordingly. “We do not want to inherit the looting and all the other foolishness that went on in New Orleans,” Kip Holden was told the Baton Rouge Advocate. “We do not want to inherit that breed that seeks to prey on other people.”

The trouble, wrote Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune is that “scarcely any of it was true - the police confiscated a single knife from a refugee in one Baton Rouge shelter". “There were no riots in Baton Rouge. There were no armed hordes.”"

We must not play the blame game indeed. I dare say that there were crimes, violent crimes even, committed during the week that President Nero fiddled while New Orleans drowned. New Orleans has never been a particularly crime-free place, after all- I have a reproduction of an 1890s tin sign on my downstairs bathroom door that says "Beware pickpockets and loose women in this area: New Orleans Police"- but usually standards of government (if not reporting, alas) demand that one waits for confirmation of fact before speaking, especially if ill-informed comment could exacebate a crisis.

And while on the subject of societal collapse, Paul Reynolds of the BBC does a masterful job analysing governmental breakdowns here. Now that is an example of fair and balanced reporting.

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