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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)

Elite Panic: why rich people think all people are monsters

Here's a quote on "Elite Panic" from Rebecca Solnit, It's an idea I'm fascinated by, particularly the notion that if you believe that people are fundamentally a mob waiting to rise up and loot but for the security state, you will build a security state that turns people into a mob of would-be looters.

The term "elite panic" was coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers. From the beginning of the field in the 1950s to the present, the major sociologists of disaster -- Charles Fritz, Enrico Quarantelli, Kathleen Tierney, and Lee Clarke -- proceeding in the most cautious, methodical, and clearly attempting-to-be-politically-neutral way of social scientists, arrived via their research at this enormous confidence in human nature and deep critique of institutional authority. It’s quite remarkable.

Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature, which I sometimes think is their own human nature. I mean, people don't become incredibly wealthy and powerful by being angelic, necessarily. They believe that only their power keeps the rest of us in line and that when it somehow shrinks away, our seething violence will rise to the surface -- that was very clear in Katrina. Timothy Garton Ash and Maureen Dowd and all these other people immediately jumped on the bandwagon and started writing commentaries based on the assumption that the rumors of mass violence during Katrina were true. A lot of people have never understood that the rumors were dispelled and that those things didn't actually happen; it's tragic.

But there's also an elite fear -- going back to the 19th century -- that there will be urban insurrection. It's a valid fear. I see these moments of crisis as moments of popular power and positive social change. The major example in my book is Mexico City, where the '85 earthquake prompted public disaffection with the one-party system and, therefore, the rebirth of civil society.

I've just ordered her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. This is basically what I was talking about here, when I described the idea I hoped to capture in the prequel to Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.

BOMB Magazine: Rebecca Solnit by Astra Taylor

(via Schneier)