Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Unspeakable urban ultra-violence underwhelms

As far as I can tell from searching Google News, not a single New Orleans policeman or National Guardsman or aid worker was killed by violence. Surprising, isn't it? Makes you wonder about all that supposed chaos and anarchy and the "waves" of violence sweeping the city. I was going to investigate further, but Matt Welch at Reason beat me to it with an article suggesting that most of the rumors of "unspeakable urban ultra-violence" are flat-out wrong.

If this is true, that would mean several things. First, the article title: "Did the rumor mill help kill Katrina victims?" Aid efforts were slowed by the fear of violence. If these fears were unfounded or exaggerated, then the answer has to be yes. Even before this, it was clear that FEMA and DHS had dreadfully poor information--the head of DHS was completely unaware of the thousands of people stranded at the Convention Center and only fo und out about it when a reporter asked why they hadn't been helped. (At which point he chided the reporter for listening to rumors! The irony...) In the absence of reliable information leads to bad decision-making--in this case, stopping the flow of aid unnecessarily, which undoubtably led to deaths.

Second, we could at least partially ditch the blame-the-victim mentality that's running rampant on the right half of the blogosphere. Failures to bring aid to the city can't be blamed on violence. You've got to lay the blame on the various organizations involved (federal and local response). I guess you'd have to blame them *anyway* since they should be able to deal with civil disorder, but this takes one more excuse away from them.

Finally, notice how the media storyline--"we tried to help these poor black people, but they screwed it all up"--is *exactly* the same as the usual storyline about poor black neighborhoods, or poor black schools, or African governments, or Reconstruction. It's hard to resist the conclusion that people are primed to assume the worst about groups of black people.