The Deadly Bigotry of Low Expectations?

Did the rumor mill help kill Katrina victims?


All along Hurricane Katrina's Evacuation Belt, in cities from Houston to Baton Rouge to Leesville, Louisiana, the exact same rumors are spreading faster than red ants at a picnic. The refugees from the United States' worst-ever natural disaster, it is repeatedly said, are bringing with them the worst of New Orleans' now-notorious lawlessness: looting, armed carjacking, and even the rape of children.

"By Thursday," the Chicago Tribune's Howard Witt reported, "local TV and radio stations in Baton Rouge…were breezily passing along reports of cars being hijacked at gunpoint by New Orleans refugees, riots breaking out in the shelters set up in Baton Rouge to house the displaced, and guns and knives being seized."

The only problem—none of the reports were true. "The police, for example, confiscated a single knife from a refugee in one Baton Rouge shelter," Witt reported. "There were no riots in Baton Rouge. There were no armed hordes." Yet the panic was enough for Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden to impose a curfew on the city's largest shelter, and to warn darkly about "New Orleans thugs."

Even before evacuees could get comfy in Houston's Astrodome, rumors were flying that the refugees had already raped their first victim, just like that seven-year-old in the Superdome, or the babies in the Convention Center who got their throats slit. Not only was the Astrodome rape invented out of whole cloth, so, perhaps was the case reported 'round the globe of at least one pre-pubescent being raped and murdered in New Orleans' iconic sports arena.

"We don't have any substantiated rapes," New Orleans Police superintendent Edwin Compass said yesterday, according to the Guardian. "We will investigate if the individuals come forward." The British paper further pointed out that, "While many claim they happened, no witnesses, survivors or survivors' relatives have come forward. Nor has the source for the story of the murdered babies, or indeed their bodies, been found. And while the floor of the convention centre toilets were indeed covered in excrement, the Guardian found no corpses."

As Katrina wiped out New Orleans' communications infrastructure, and while key federal officials repeatedly expressed less knowledge than cable television reporters, panicky rumors quickly rushed in to fill the void. Many of them have shared the exact same theme—unspeakable urban ultra-violence, perpetuated by the overwhelmingly black population.

St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis issued a statement yesterday that "Rumors are flying and being repeated occasionally in the media that describe supposed criminal actions in St. Tammany Parish. These rumors are NOT true." Police superintendent Compass yesterday had to fend off accusations yesterday that his beleagured force "stood by while women were raped and people were beaten."

The truth, whatever it may be, is clearly horrific enough, with just about every eyewitness account from New Orleans mentioning the palpable menace from crazed gangs of looters and ne'er-do-wells, especially after nightfall. Compass himself told reporters on Thursday that 88 of his cops were beaten back into a retreat by angry Convention Center refugees, forcing Mayor Ray Nagin to suspend rescue operations in favor of restoring a semblance of order.

But the lies matter too. If federal government officials can't even get their ass-covering justifications straight, let alone such non-trivial, easy-to-discern matters as whether there are indeed thousands of water-deprived refugees massed at a Convention Center, those stranded near the epicenter will likely be starved for information that could literally save their lives.

"Complaints are still rampant in New Orleans about a lack of information," NBC Anchor Brian Williams wrote on his weblog yesterday, echoing one of the most familiar complaints from the city. "It's one of many running themes of the past week: There were no announcements in the Superdome during the storm, none to direct people after the storm, no official word (via bullhorn, leaflets or any other means) during the week-long, on-foot migration (and eventual stagnation) that defined life in the downtown section of the city for those first few days. One can't help but think that a single-engine plane towing a banner over the city would have been immeasurably helpful in both crowd and rumor control."

And it's entirely possible that, like the chimeric Baton Rouge hordes, exaggerations about New Orleans' criminality affected policy, mostly by delaying rescue operations and the provision of aid. Relief efforts ground to a halt last week after reports circulated of looters shooting at helicopters, yet none of the hundreds of articles I read on the subject contained a single first-hand confirmation from a pilot or eyewitness. The suspension-triggering attack—on a military Chinook attempting to evacuate refugees from the Superdome—was contested by Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown, who told ABC News, "We're controlling every single aircraft in that airspace and none of them reported being fired on." What's more, when asked about the attacks, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff replied: "I haven't actually received a confirmed report of someone firing on a helicopter."

I don't begrudge any helicopter pilot erring on the side of caution; the vehicle is dangerous enough without a razor-thin margin for error. But a razor-thin margin is precisely what the wretched residents of New Orleans have had for nearly 10 days now, and too many of them have already succumbed. Incoming National Guard troops, steeled for urban warfare, have been surprised to instead encounter mostly docile and relieved stragglers.

Try as we might, it's almost impossible to avoid seeing any major event through the lens of our own prejudices and worldview. France-bashers were ready to slam Paris for being stingy about hurricane aid even before, you know, actually checking to see whether it was true (it wasn't). My prior antipathy toward the Department of Homeland Security has now hardened into something approaching activism. As we cast about for blame to lay, and lessons to learn for the next catastrophe, it's worth asking whether our haste to confirm our suspicions by believing the worst prevented us from doing our best.