Often, after Nature hands us the first punch, the second comes from the Man.
Witness, in the face of Katrina, the shameful failure of response by the most powerful government on earth to the survival needs of its poor, mostly black, residents of New Orleans.
But Katrina only exposed that long before Nature’s assault, the punches had been raining down from the Man. Most of those left stranded could not evacuate because they were too poor. Where would they go without cars, without cash, credit cards, or bank accounts to pay for hotel rooms?
You cannot kick Nature’s ass for bringing Katrina on shore. But the disaster made by the Man should have consequences. “Toss the scoundrels out” is a sentiment that has often been heard, post-Katrina.
Sometimes it does work out that way. My memory goes back to the November 1970 cyclone that hit the southern coast of East Pakistan, today’s Bangladesh.
That storm did not have a name; the tropical storms in the Bay of Bengal are not given names. Just as well, why try to give Nature’s fury a human name? I keep meaning to ask a friend if she still wants to be called Katrina.
In Bangladesh, we tend to remember the cyclones by their dates. Or their devastation. That storm took the lives of perhaps as many as a million people.
The disaster that came afterwards did have a name: General Yahya Khan.
Pakistan was then ruled by a military dictatorship. Despite a huge military, the center was criminally negligent in its response. Ordinary Bengalis swarmed volunteer teams to provide help to those in need. Students were in the forefront of the relief effort, and as a 17-year old student, I too remember unloading C-130 planes bringing Red Cross relief and joining a team to the southern tip of the delta. The British and U.S. militaries arrived in ships and planes. It was a shame that the Pakistan military that was bloated from huge budgets had to get help from foreign armies. There was a reason for that, of course, as we would soon find out.
Within weeks, the country had long-scheduled elections and the people of East Bengal did not forget the lesson of the failure of the central government. The nationalist party, the Awami League, then championing autonomy for the eastern province, won a resounding victory. Even before the cyclone, they would have won, but the storm made the elections a referendum on self-determination. With their majority, this party was poised to win autonomy and form the government at both the center and provincial levels.
Yahya Khan’s response to that was to defy the popular mandate and order an armed crackdown. The military that had failed at relief had really been groomed for civil war. It would take until December 1971 for Bangladesh to be liberated; but that is another story. Independence did not solve our basic social problems, but it did do away with a colonial yoke that had proved intolerable.
Katrina has brought to the surface much that is ugly and wrong here in the U.S. What will its consequences be?
There may well be some impact in the next round of elections, but I find myself skeptical that in any immediate sense anything substantial will change. Before our 1970 elections, we had several years of mass movement: the building of a culture of resistance, street demonstrations, general strikes, challenges to bullets and curfews, defiance of martial law, and widespread organizing by the opposition. Without that sort of popular mobilization, the 1970 cyclone would have been just another tragedy, not a call to rebel in favor of a political alternative.
However, Katrina, in the wake of the other disaster in the Persian Gulf, has contributed to the development of a questioning culture. Hitherto taboo subjects are again being talked about, even in corners of the mainstream media. Many people are asking, what can we do. Let us hope that the questions continue — relentlessly.