Katrina's Flights of Fancy
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The instant Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters raged down Canal Street, New Orleans' main drag, the tongues of the assorted doomsayers, fringe bloggers, fire-and-brimstone fundamentalists, unreconstructed Nazis and Klan members, leftists, black activists, loonies and even some in the mainstream media wagged furiously.
All claimed that Katrina was the work of sinister forces. In one of the first e-mails I received after Katrina hit, an unnamed informant (they usually are), swore that, take your pick -- FEMA operatives, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Klan or the CIA -- dynamited the levees to, again, take your pick -- kill blacks, steal their land, save the French Quarter and the tourist traps from destruction.
That, or this was a Karl Rove-engineered plot to turn Louisiana into a solid GOP red state.
The problem, though, is that President George W. Bush trounced his Democratic presidential opponents Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004 in Louisiana. The state was already pretty red. And the loud noises that accompanied the levees' breaking probably had to do with the impact of water pressure, high winds and power outages, not Navy Seal dynamiters.
Still, that fantasy quickly soared to the top of the Katrina Urban Legends. In the days immediately after the destruction, it would be spouted incessantly.
If blacks could spin paranoid tales of genocide and dark plots against them, a slew of avowed white supremacist groups could do the same. Their Web sites pulsed with their own millennium race-bash warnings. One called for a "cartridges for Katrina" program to ship ammo to whites in New Orleans and other areas to ward off the supposed hordes of black looters and criminals blazing a path of mayhem. Others called for "whites only" tent cities for white evacuees. The more bloodthirsty supremacists, though, were content to gloat over the deaths of blacks and regret that more hadn't been killed.
While the race baiters were the first ones out of the conspiracy box, others soon followed. A big group quickly settled on the notion that Katrina was part of the weather wars supposedly unleashed by greedy oil companies, Bush administration operatives, and the always-favored liberal whipping boy, Halliburton. Their sinister aim was either to hike oil prices, deflect attention from Iraq or ladle out millions in construction contracts to Bush's corporate pals.
Lest anyone think the weather-war theory was confined to musty corners on fringe Web sites, Time Magazine led the charge with the headline, "Is Global Warming Fueling Katrina?"
Though there is no conclusive evidence that rising ocean temperatures have anything to do with Katrina (many scientists attribute it to natural cycles), the fact that Time floated the theory guaranteed that it would be discussed and debated in respected circles. Some jumped all over it and used it as an excuse to take a cheap and free shot at Bush.
By the second week, the divine-retribution crowd jumped into the act with both feet. A Jihadist group claimed that Katrina was God's punishment for America's backing of Israel. Closer to home, a slew of Christian fundamentalist voices said it was God's revenge for America's Satanic tout of homosexuality, abortion, sexual depravity, Ellen DeGeneres, gambling and other vices. One religious leader gleefully declared New Orleans abortion-free, Mardi Gras-free, free of Southern decadence, the sodomites, witchcraft workers and false religion. Alleluia!
But taking the cake was a conspiracy theory from an Idaho weatherman who may have read one too many James Bond thrillers. He claimed that Katrina was a put-up job by Japanese crime groups to wreak havoc on the U.S. for the World War II A-bombing of Hiroshima. The crime groups allegedly fired up an old Soviet-made electromagnetic generator to trigger the disaster.
Before you chuckle too hard, note that this story didn't come from a screwball Web site; it was a feature Associated Press article, picked up by USA Today. The writer even sought out respected scientists to refute the theory. All, of course, properly denounced it as ludicrous. Still, it got an obscure weatherman his 15 minutes, and along the way managed to stir some debate. This one came three weeks after Katrina hit, and supposedly all the other conspiracy theories had long since been laughed into the crackpot bin.
It's really no surprise that Aryan Nation racists, Millennium Christian fundamentalists, anti-Semitic crackpots, and fringe-left radicals along with thousands of seemingly normal, otherwise well-adjusted Americans would indulge in paranoid -- or if you want to be charitable, imaginative -- flights of fancy about disasters. All have long believed that government, corporate, or international Zionist groups busily hatch secret plots and concoct hidden plans to wreak havoc on our lives.
Hollywood and the TV industry have also horned in on the conspiracy act. They churn out countless movies and TV shows in which shadowy, government groups topple foreign governments and brainwash operatives to do dirty deeds.
If it's not the government, then there's always the perfect fallback to ease guilt or fear, or simply dumbfoundedness over a disaster -- blame it on God. The Katrina conspiracies were comic, tragic, deplorable, reckless, and always absurd, but my guess is we haven't heard the last of them.
Pardon me, I have to go and check my e-mail.