Disaster porn and elite panic: the militarized lie of savage disaster aftermath


Jonathan M. Katz reported on the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake for the AP. What he saw there ran contrary to the prevailing narrative of violence, looting and lawlessness in the streets. Instead, what he found was another example of "Elite Panic", the UN's "relief" forces landing heavily armed people all around the island who treated everyone as a bestial looter. Katz's piece on the experience draws comparisons with the way that the aftermath of Katrina, Sandy and other disasters were reported -- a stilted, evidence-free narrative that demanded that life be like the movies, where the slightest faltering of the state is immediately attended by a descent into savagery.

Yet authorities themselves showed an equal — and often far more dangerous — tendency to overreact. Trymaine Lee, part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Katrina coverage at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, wrote a scathing report from New Orleans five years later for The New York Times. Having taken time to investigate and reflect, he reported that despite a popular belief that the storm zone had been an inherently violent place, “Today, a clearer picture is emerging … including white vigilante violence, police killings, official cover-ups and a suffering population far more brutalized than many were willing to believe...."

That pacific posture wasn’t deployed in Haiti. Paratroopers landed, rifles in hand, on the lawn of the destroyed National Palace, while thousands more troops waited aboard warships in the bay of Port-au-Prince, never to disembark. The U.S. Southern Command cited “serious concerns within the (U.S. government) and international community that the security situation could sharply deteriorate, and that the U.S. military might have to provide security broadly in the affected areas and beyond.” (Anderson, who was not in Haiti, said he agreed with that posture, noting: “The Haitians are very demonstrative people, loud, and there’s insecurity there on a good day much less a bad day.”)

UN peacekeepers, whose ranks also swelled after the quake, organized food distributions with a defensive posture, herding thousands of Haitians into open squares under the sun’s apogee, then standing in front of food with riot shields, clubs and rifles at the ready, pepper-spraying and beating people as they came to get the food, with no clear provocation. News accounts often referred to these scenes as “riots.”

Finding peace in post-disaster Haiti [Jonathan M. Katz/Ochberg Society]

(Thanks, Patrick!)

(Image: Militares paraguayos en Haití, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from laembajada's photostream)