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William Rivers Pitt: Let the Dead Teach the Living

Let the Dead Teach the Living

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Thursday 08 September 2005

They have turned a gigantic warehouse into a makeshift morgue in the Louisiana town of St. Gabriel. Doctors and forensic specialists wait there for the bodies to come in, bodies with no identification, bodies that have spent days submerged in water, bodies gnawed by dogs and rats and 'gators. The doctors have posted a hand-lettered sign on the wall: "Mortui Vivis Praecipant." It means, "Let the dead teach the living."

There's a stiffened body under a tarp on Union Street in downtown New Orleans that has been there for days. Others float helplessly down streets and in canals. More than 100 people died in a warehouse down by the docks. They had been waiting for a rescue that never came. Thirty people died in a flooded-out nursing home outside the city, left there by the staff to wait for a rescue that, again, never came. By every indication, there are thousands of other bodies awaiting discovery, people who lost their lives in exactly this fashion. FEMA has ordered 25,000 body bags.

An edict has come down from the federal government banning press photographers from taking any pictures of the dead as they lay waiting for removal. Echoes of the ban on photographs of American soldiers in flag-draped caskets returned from Iraq are present, as are echoes of a ban on the new photos taken from within Abu Ghraib. Perhaps, it is thought, that if the American people cannot see death, they will come to believe it does not exist.

Four people have died already from water-borne disease. Vibrio vulnificus, a bacterium naturally found in salt water, killed one person plucked from the city who was then taken to Texas, and killed three people removed to Mississippi. The bacterium is a close cousin to cholera. Tests on the standing water in New Orleans have found more than 100 different chemicals present, including pesticides and solvents. Lead is also present in dangerous levels. The waters contain at least ten times the amount of acceptable bacterial strains found in sewage. The phrase "at least ten times" must be used, because the tests themselves are unable to register anything higher than that. The bacteria, in other words, pegged the needle.

A first-hand account from a professional psychologist named Anne Gervasi is making the rounds. Gervasi traveled to New Orleans to volunteer her time in rescue and rehabilitation efforts in Reunion Arena and the Civic Center. "I am no infection guru," reported Gervasi, "but as soon as I heard on day one that people with no water were forced to drink water with bloated bodies, feces, and rats in it, the thought of cholera, typhoid, and delayed disease immediately occurred to me. What if the fears of disease are correct? People are fanning out throughout America. Where is the CDC?"

"The trauma they are experiencing," continued Gervasi, "is so profound that we have no cultural term or machinery set up for it. The dead and nameless bodies by the thousands rotting in the water, arriving dead on the buses with them, or dying next to them in the shelters, are a huge festering wound that no one dares mention. This is a true Diaspora the likes of which we haven't seen since Reconstruction. The immediate needs that are being addressed ignore the greater traumas yet to be spoken. No governmental system can survive the number of wounded and disillusioned people that we are going to see sprouting up all over America. Something far greater and more organized has to be done."

Professor, author and columnist Walter Brasch has compiled some numbers that deserve to be included in any discussion of what has taken place. George W. Bush inherited from his predecessor a $230 billion budget surplus and a balanced budget. In the five years since, the surplus has become a $7.9 trillion deficit, which increases at a rate of about $1.7 billion per day. The occupation of Iraq costs somewhere between $4 billion and $5 billion per month, increasing the deficit exponentially. A meticulously-reconstructed Federal Emergency Management Agency was downsized and budget-slashed by this administration as part of its "small-government" quest, and run by an appointee whose experience in disaster management came from representing the owners of Arabian horses.

Mortui Vivis Praecipant. What have the dead taught the living in the last two weeks? We have learned that priorities matter. We have learned that the conservative small-government model is a recipe for catastrophe. We have learned that government is sure to absolutely fail its citizens when it is run by people who hate government. We have learned that massive budget cuts and agency downsizing are not theoretical or political exercises. Before Katrina, we were learning that an irresponsible and unnecessary war in Iraq was making us less safe at home. After Katrina, we have learned exactly how unsafe we are as four years of tough talk about defending the nation has been exposed by the wind and the rain. We have learned that leadership matters, and that the absence of leadership is deadly.

We have been hearing from Bush and his friends that now is not a time for the "Blame Game," as if an assessment of responsibility is nothing more than another political football to be punted down the field. A New York Times editorial from Wednesday stated, "This is not a game. It is critical to know what 'things went wrong,' as Mr. Bush put it. But we also need to know which officials failed - not to humiliate them, but to replace them with competent people ... disasters like this are not a city or a state issue. They concern the entire nation and demand a national response - certainly a better one than the White House comments that 'tremendous progress' had been made in Louisiana."

Never fear, however, for George W. Bush has said he will personally investigate the failures that led to this calamity. This is a comforting thought. Perhaps he will appoint Henry Kissinger, whom Bush first chose to head the investigation into 9/11 way back when, to lead the way.

This has only just begun. The impact of hundreds of thousands of displaced people, who need jobs and homes and whose children need schooling, will slowly but surely begin to be felt. The psychological scars from the experience will begin to tell upon them. "We are more vulnerable now than before 9/11 because faith in the system is gone," reported Anne Gervasi from New Orleans. "No system can sustain itself as a viable entity when the citizenry are the walking wounded. Victims implode a system from within and expose its decay. This is the beginning of the end unless we can get a drastic change of philosophy and restore the government to a system 'by the people for the people.' Right now nobody down here believes we have that."

What have the dead taught the living? Responsible and effective government matters. At this moment, we have neither. We are, simply put, on our own.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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