President Obama failed to learn one of the basic lessons taught by Hurricane Katrina: You can’t solve a humanitarian problem by throwing guns at it. Before the president had finished insisting that "my national security team understands that I will not put up with any excuses," Haiti’s fate was sealed. National security teams prioritize national security, an amorphous and expensive notion that has little to do with keeping Haitian citizens alive.
By the weekend, it was clear that something perverse was going on in Haiti, something savage and bestial in its lack of concern for human life. I’m not talking about the earthquake, and certainly not about the so-called "looting," which I prefer to think of as the autonomously organized distribution of unjustly hoarded goods. I’m talking about the U.S. relief effort.
For two days after the quake, despite almost unimaginable destruction, there were reasons to be optimistic. With a few notable exceptions-Pat Robertson and David Brooks among them-Americans reacted with extraordinary and unhesitating generosity of spirit and of purse. Port-au-Prince is not much farther from Washington, D.C., than, say, New Orleans, and the current president of the United States, unlike his predecessor, was quick to react to catastrophe. Taking advantage of "our unique capacity to project power around the world," President Barack Obama pledged abundant aid and 10,000 troops.
Troops? Port-au-Prince had been leveled by an earthquake, not a barbarian invasion, but, OK, troops. Maybe they could put down their rifles and, you know, carry stuff, make themselves useful. At least they could get there soon: The naval base at Guantanamo was barely 200 miles away.
The Cubans, at least, would show up quickly. It wasn’t until Friday, three days after the quake, that the "supercarrier" USS Carl Vinson, arrived-and promptly ran out of supplies. "We have communications, we have some command and control, but we don’t have much relief supplies to offer," admitted Rear Adm. Ted Branch. So what were they doing there?
"Command and control" turned out to be the key words. The U.S. military did what the U.S. military does. Like a slow-witted, fearful giant, it built a wall around itself, commandeering the Port-au-Prince airport and constructing a mini-Green Zone. As thousands of tons of desperately needed food, water, and medical supplies piled up behind the airport fences-and thousands of corpses piled up outside them-Defense Secretary Robert Gates ruled out the possibility of using American aircraft to airdrop supplies: "An airdrop is simply going to lead to riots," he said. The military’s first priority was to build a "structure for distribution" and "to provide security." (Four days and many deaths later, the United States began airdropping aid.)
The TV networks and major papers gamely played along. Forget hunger, dehydration, gangrene, septicemia-the real concern was "the security situation," the possibility of chaos, violence, looting. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of on-the-ground accounts from people who did not have to answer to editors described Haitians taking care of one another, digging through rubble with their bare hands, caring for injured loved ones-and strangers-in the absence of outside help. Even the evidence of "looting" documented something that looked more like mutual aid: The photograph that accompanied a Sunday New York Times article reporting "pockets of violence and anarchy" showed men standing atop the ruins of a store, tossing supplies to the gathered crowd.
The guiding assumption, though, was that Haitian society was on the very edge of dissolving into savagery. Suffering from "progress-resistant cultural influences" (that’s David Brooks finding a polite way to call black people primitive), Haitians were expected to devour one another and, like wounded dogs, to snap at the hands that fed them. As much as any logistical bottleneck, the mania for security slowed the distribution of aid.
Air-traffic control in the Haitian capital was outsourced to an Air Force base in Florida, which, not surprisingly, gave priority to its own pilots. While the military flew in troops and equipment, planes bearing supplies for the Red Cross, the World Food Program, and Doctors Without Borders were rerouted to Santo Domingo in neighboring Dominican Republic. Aid flights from Mexico, Russia, and France were refused permission to land. On Monday, the British Daily Telegraph reported, the French minister in charge of humanitarian aid admitted he had been involved in a "scuffle" with a U.S. commander in the airport’s control tower. According to the Telegraph, it took the intervention of the United Nations for the United States to agree to prioritize humanitarian flights over military deliveries.
Meanwhile, much of the aid that was arriving remained at the airport. Haitians watched American helicopters fly over the capital, commanding and controlling, but no aid at all was being distributed in most of the city. On Tuesday, a doctor at a field hospital within site of the runways complained that five to 10 patients were dying each day for lack of the most basic medical necessities. "We can look at the supplies sitting there," Alphonse Edward told Britain’s Channel 4 News.
The much-feared descent into anarchy stubbornly refused to materialize. "It is calm at this time," Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, deputy commander of the U.S. Southern Command, admitted to the AP on Monday. "Those who live and work here tell me that the level of violence that we see right now is below pre-earthquake levels." He announced that four-four, in a city of more than 2 million-aid-distribution points had been set up on the sixth day of the crisis.
So what happened? Why the mad rush to command and control, with all its ultimately murderous consequences? Why the paranoid focus on security above saving lives? Clearly, President Obama failed to learn one of the basic lessons taught by Hurricane Katrina: You can’t solve a humanitarian problem by throwing guns at it. Before the president had finished insisting that "my national security team understands that I will not put up with any excuses," Haiti’s fate was sealed. National security teams prioritize national security, an amorphous and expensive notion that has little to do with keeping Haitian citizens alive.
This leaves the more disturbing question of why the Obama administration chose to respond as if they were there to confront an insurgency, rather than to clear rubble and distribute antibiotics and MREs. The beginning of an answer can be found in what Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell, calls "elite panic"- the conviction of the powerful that their own Hobbesian corporate ethic is innate in all of us, that in the absence of centralized authority, only cannibalism can reign.
But the danger of hunger-crazed mobs never came up after the 2004 Pacific tsunami, and no one mentions security when tornados and floods wipe out swaths of the American Midwest. This suggests two possibilities, neither of them flattering. The first is that the administration had strategic reasons for sending 10,000 troops that had little to do with disaster relief. This is the explanation favored by the Latin American left and, given the United States’ history of invasion and occupation in Haiti (and in the Dominican Republic and Cuba and Nicaragua and Grenada and Panama), it is difficult to dismiss. Only time will tell what "reconstruction" means.
Another answer lies closer to home. New Orleans and Port-au-Prince have one obvious thing in common: The majority of both cities’ residents are black and poor. White people who are not poor have been known, when confronted with black people who are, to start locking their car doors and muttering about their security. It doesn’t matter what color our president is. Even when it is ostensibly doing good, the U.S. government can be racist, and, in an entirely civil and bureaucratic fashion, savagely cruel.
Ben Ehrenreich, a journalist and novelist based in Los Angeles, is the author of The Suitors. He reported from Haiti in 2006 for L.A. Weekly.