Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Dereliction of Duty Defined

Keith Olbermann, an MSNBC commentator, usually provides facts without becoming a newscast of commentary. On the September 05, 2005, broadcast, Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security, stated that Louisiana is a city that is largely underwater.

There has been a lot of finger pointing from anyone with a pulse without understanding the full scope of events in the Gulf Coast. The Monday night broadcast, Secretary Chertoff’s declaration triggered Mr. Olbermann’s eloquent editorial below:

Well, there's your problem right there. If ever a slip of the tongue defined a government's response to a crisis.

Forget the history of slashed federal budgets for projects that might have saved the levees. Drop the imagery of the government watching "Monty Python's Flying Circus" while New Orleans drowned. Ignore the symbol of bureaucrats like Mr. Chertoff using only the future tense in terms of relief that they could have supplied Monday and Tuesday.

We no longer need the president sounding like he's on some sort of five-day tape delay to summarize this debacle. We now have Mr. Chertoff's indelible announcement that Louisiana is a city. Politician after politician, Republican and Democrat alike, has paraded before us, unwilling or unable to shut off the I/me switch in their heads, condescendingly telling us about how moved they were or how devastated they were, congenitally incapable of telling the difference between the destruction of a city and the opening of a new supermarket somewhere. [. . .]

No one is suggesting that mayors or governors in the afflicted areas, nor the federal government, should be able to stop hurricanes. Lord knows, no one is suggesting that we should ever prioritize levee improvement for a below-sea-level city ahead of $454 million worth of trophy bridges for the politicians of Alaska.

But, nationally, these are leaders who won reelection last year largely by portraying their opponents as incapable of keeping this country safe. These are leaders who regularly pressure the news media in this country to report the reopening of a school or a power station in Iraq and which regularly defies its citizens not to stand up and cheer when something like that is accomplished.

Yet, they couldn't even keep one school or power station from being devastated by infrastructure collapse in New Orleans, even though the government had heard all the chatter from the scientists and city planners and hurricane centers and some group whose purposes the government couldn't quite discern, a group called the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Most chillingly of all, this is the law and order and terror government. It promised protection, or at least amelioration, against all threats, conventional, radiological or biological. It has just proved that it cannot save its citizens from a biological weapon called standing water.

Mr. Bush has now twice insisted that — quote — "We are not satisfied" — unquote — with the response to the manifold tragedies along the Gulf Coast. I wonder which "we" he thinks he is speaking for on this point. Perhaps it is the administration, although we still don't know where some of them are. Anybody seen the vice president lately, the man whose message this time last year was, I will protect you; the other guy might let you die? I don't know which "we" Mr. Bush meant.

For many of this country's citizens, the mantra has been, as we were taught in social studies it should always be, whether or not I voted for this president, he is still my president. I suspect anybody who had to give him that benefit of the doubt stopped doing so last week. I suspect, also, a lot of his supporters, looking ahead to '08, are wondering how they can distance themselves from the two words which will define his government, our government: New Orleans.

For him, it is a shame, in all senses of the word. A few changes of pronouns in there and he might not have looked so much like a 21st century Marie Antoinette. All that was needed was just a quick, "I'm not satisfied with my government's response," instead of hiding behind phrases like "no one could have foreseen."

Had he only remembered Churchill's quote from the 1930s. "The responsibility of government for the public safety," Churchill said, "is absolute and requires no mandate. It is in fact the prime object for which governments come into existence."

In forgetting that, the current administration did not merely damage itself. It damaged our confidence in our ability to rely on whoever is in the White House.

As we emphasized to you here all last week, the realities of the region are such that New Orleans is going to be largely uninhabitable for a lot longer than anybody is yet willing to recognize. Lord knows when the last body will be found or the last artifact of the levee break dug up. Could be next March. Could be the year 2100.

By then, in the muck and toxic mire of New Orleans, they may even find our government's credibility, somewhere in the city of Louisiana.
It took too long locating the Executive Branch. Spread out to the four corners of the globe, they chose to vacation in a self-imposed news and communication technology blackout without delegating a clear line of authority. To them, their job accountability (if they acknowledge any at all) ends when they go home or they are on leave (if they do not commit fraud as if they are J. Edgar Hoover).

This is blatant dereliction of duty.


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