Sunday, September 4

Hell Ships

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.


Anonymous said...

I wish I had some answers. At this point, I'm starting to buy into the Righteous Revenge of a Wrathful God thing. And, hell, I'm a pagan. But look at how we treat people, look at how we treat this planet. People die from our decisions every day, it's just rarely on the news.

Honestly, you'll notice that *still* nobody's particularly exercised about the torture our government has committed in our names, and may well still be doing.
If I had to guess, I might say it has something to do with a society that has deliberately worked to turn out consumers rather than citizens, and which has reduced, in the end, everything to a product.

Safe evacuation was a product. Apparently National Guard attention is a product. Certainly dry land, food, water, were all products. And hell, the levees were products, too, ones we thought were too expensive.
Ultimately, we regard peoples' lives as products, property, something to be owned and bought and sold.

And when you're comparing a big screen TV to a poor person you've been told was too dumb to leave a disaster area, and who looks nothing like you, it's probably pretty easy to decide which is the more valuable product.
Or at least, which one you'd rather have in your home. It's facile, I know. But so is the entire consumerization of the citizenry.

It really seems like everybody has a price on them, how much they're worth. And that price has nothing to do with who you are, but what you can do for the people who make the decisions.
So rich guys the president knows, they're pretty valuable property. Like Ming vases--you coddle those. People who helped the president get elected, they're pretty valuable, too. They're the really good home theater system. People who voted for him, mostly they're about as valuable an item as shoes.

It's just that suddenly we're learning, vividly, that he's always regarded poor Americans who don't vote and don't pay much in income taxes (though probably a lot more in sales taxes) are basically no more valuable than a loaf of bread that's already been written off by a store owner and an insurance company and will be mildewed within a couple of days.

I read somewhere once that all sin starts with viewing other people as things. I always thought that was a pretty good guideline. But I've also long thought myself that sin can start from viewing all things as commodities. And that's exactly what our hyperconsumerist society is set up to teach us. Everything's for sale. Everything.
Including us.

James Briggs Stratton "Doghouse" Riley said...

Well said, my friend.

I've spent too much time watching the news this week, but I couldn't do anything else. I'm glad there's a kitten to take care of and pelt with paper wads, because I can't cook without thinking of the great places where I ate in Nouvelle Orleans; gardening's been a chore, despite the autumn clematis in bloom and the hummingbirds stocking up before migrating and the late roses. Iraq and Abu Gharib are in my mind but I can't think about them, and everything surrounding 9/11 is there, too. I haven't even thought about the destruction of a city I almost made my home back before I got married. The wretched horror of Katrina is so overpowering and at the same time it's only a part of the wretched horror of the Bush administration and its apologists and everything that's gone wrong with this country. That Wrathful God thing lies like a cooling pool you know you can't jump into however much you need it. Because God would have had so much better targets and a lot better aim.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you have seen this, but apparently you CAN talk sense to these people.