In the Second World War 70,000 Allied prisoners and Asian slave laborers were transported in Japanese merchant ships across the Empire. The ships became known as the Hell Ships. Prisoners were typically crowded below decks, in cargo holds, in appalling conditions, or crammed onto available space on deck, unprotected from the elements. They were abused and neglected, given little in the way of food or water. As many as 22,000 died.
One such ship was the Oryoku-maru, a 15,000-ton luxury liner built just before the war. Sixteen-hundred Allied prisoners of war who had been kept on Luzon were marched out of Manilla and massed in her two holds. It was stifling hot and there was little ventilation. They had been fed a nominal meal, but given no water since morning. A few buckets were lowered down for waste; these soon overflowed and feces and urine were tracked everywhere. Their agitated movements and cries for water exhausted the available oxygen. Men suffocated. Men went mad. Deadly fights broke out. Men murdered their fellows to drink their blood. There were as many as a hundred dead by morning.
I don't repeat the story to make an easy analogy with New Orleans. These were men who had undergone the horrors of war and the brutalities of their Japanese captors. They had little freedom of movement and little air, and many had given up hope long before. And I don't repeat it for some easy moralism about how these men did not sacrifice so their children and grandchildren could be treated by their own country in much the same way, whether through incompetence or actual neglect; today that moral argument doesn't need my repeating.
You've heard the overt racism and the covert concern over "lawlessness". Those are the voices of an immense political problem, our political problem, but they also condemn themselves.
Instead, what I'd like to ask is why the cable nets and others flogged the looting story for three days before they ever stopped to consider the humanity down below. I know the proper response now is gratitude that they woke up to the suffering long before our government did, and many have been merciless advocates for the victims. And I am grateful. I'll be even more grateful if the attitude continues.
But it is, I think, the minimum decent human values require. The airwaves are filled now with compassion for "people living paycheck to paycheck" and there's no longer any tolerance for that "people who refused to move caused their own problems" shit. The focus has been kept on the outright lack of concern on getting people out beforehand or sustaining life afterwards, even after all the press conference bullshit and the Presidential photo op. And a distinction is made between people taking what they had to to survive and the looters of expensive consumer electronics.
Still, one asks, "What took so long?" What was the fascination with property violations compared to the vast human tragedy visible below? How could they blithely repeat the official line that people would have to stay in the Superdome for weeks with no apparent understanding it already was a hell hole? We didn't need to see inside after the roof was breached to know that. Why wasn't anybody screaming about it on Tuesday?
I may have singled out CNN producer-turned-reporter Kim Segal before. I don't remember at this point. But it's worth repeating that on Wednesday afternoon she was still spouting vile Crackerisms like, "you can't talk sense to these people!" with no one prepared to pull the plug on her. "[The looters] are taking advantage of suffering people," she said, speaking of shop owners whose personal circumstances she knew nothing about. The only people we could be sure were suffering at that point were "those people".
I'm glad they've turned this around, but it's not particularly comforting that it took scenes of massive suffering, of the young and the elderly and the infirm, to rouse them to the level of simple humanity. There's been great work under unbelievable circumstances by many people, and Tony Zumbado's work at the Convention Center probably saved many lives. But along with fully examining the criminal incompetence of our own government, we need to look at why it took the media so long to find up from down.