No, I am not calling the events similar, beneath their underlying tragedy. In fact, I consider them to be bookends, illustrating opposite faces of the same trend.
In New York on 9/11 (as I have pointed out ad nauseam), a brief failure of anticipatory prevention by society’s professional protectors was immediately dealt with by a stunning series of ad hoc actions by a wide variety of resilient citizens, self-organizing and acting swiftly to limit the damage, palliate suffering, and fight back against our enemies. Indeed, the only fighting-back that took place, that day.
In New Orleans we have witnessed individual initiative and citizen self-organization stymied and thwarted at every turn. Indeed, THE common element of behavior practiced by FEMA, the NoLa police, neighboring constabularies, and other agencies, has been to assert authority and disperse self-organizing groups (calling them mobs), to block bridges and access points, to actively block self-organized evacuation efforts, to prevent unofficial deliveries of food and other aid... and so on.
Oh, many have striven to exhaustion, heroically doing their jobs as they saw best. But that best often meant telling citizens “sit put!” in the middle of pure hell. It is almost as if, having seen how well the People did on 9/11, the paid professional protective caste swore an oath - never again.
Now Please. I am not asserting this is true, as such. That dramatized vow. But I do think it is time to ask: what is it that we are really seeing here?
What conditions are essential for civilized behavior - both in normality and in crisis?
I believe there are two fundamental ingredients.
1- accountability for those who would be predators
2- empowerment for those who would either compete fairly or cooperate vigorously for the common good. (Especially the kind of empowerment that lets individuals hold others (including elites) accountable.)
Re #1 In a crisis, normal modes of accountability can dissolve. The disfunctionality of the NoLa police has become clear. The incredible behavior of suburban police and FEMA, at times actively preventing both evacuation and the delivery of aid, should be held accountable, The lack of readiness, especially in the form of a substantial civilian reserve, is something I will address below.
Even worse was the near absence of the LA national guard, frittered away as one small part of the utter betrayal of US readiness. (Reserves and the Guard are only supposed to be used by the President in emergencies. And while I am unusual in my anti-war attitudes (I supported ousting Saddam as a long needed measure to erase the Shame of 91), this intervention was NOT an "emergency room operation.” It was "elective surgery" and could have been planned carefully. We had time to come up with an efficient - and not a dismally stupid - war plan. Not one that yanked reservists away from their jobs, families and the states that could - at any moment - desperately need them.)
In summary, blithering incompetence might... perhaps... explain the lack of accountability...
It also could explain the failure of #2. Citizen empowerment. Still, I doubt very much that mere incompetence could explain the whole story. The diametrically opposite images of profoundly empowered NewYorkers and utterly hamstrung citizens of New Orleans.
Several interlocutors have pointed out that there used to be an entire apparatus of volunteer Civil Defense volunteers, nationwide and in every community. Yes, many were John Bircher freaks. But their zeal was channeled toward a useful activity. And neighborhood Dads knew where to go, in order to marshal in local, ad hoc brigades, providing manpower and backup for a city in trouble.
Today, we ask nothing of citizens, and so the majority who want to be effective in a crisis have no seed of an idea how to do so. A pity, since we are vastly better educated and technologically empowered than ever. No no less willing - inside - to stand up as citizens.
It could have been national policy to take the embryonic notion of "Smart Mobs" and enhance it, so that self organizing citizens might show what they can do, while the officials and professionals have their hands full ... or (even more urgently) while those officials are falling to pieces. In NoLa we saw citizen initiative relentlessly punished.
I could list - if challenged - at least forty small enabling projects that could make such a difference, ranging from Citizen Action Networks to shortening the ramp-up time for regenerating our forefathers’ citizen army, if ever again it were needed in a crisis.
Here’s just one example: Most of these people in NoLa had cell phones. The cell system collapsed, turning those phones into useless bricks. And yet, I have sketched a PEER-to-PEER concept that could overlay upon the existing cell network, that would continue working even when all the cell towers fail. (Three guesses; have I been able to get anybody interested?)
The fact is that almost anybody could come up with a similar list... IF they started thinking about citizen enablement, instead of turf protection for the paid professional protective caste.
And again... please! That way of saying it... the Paid Professional Protective Caste (PPPC) is meant to draw ATTENTION... not to denigrate the sincere skill and dedication of most members of that caste. We need them desperately. And they are suffering, now, from horrendous political interference that amount to outright purges.
Still, they need us as much as we need them. And they need to learn this fact. They need to face it now. Or they will prove that they do not deserve our trust.
I am increasingly convinced that the real, underlying problem in society today is a gut-level, almost instinctive fear of the coming Age of Amateurs. This civilization is the one that is engendering a new age of autonomous citizenship... and yet, many of our leaders and elites are drawing back from the change, almost as if in visceral fear.