The culture of fear

My esteemed colleague Evan pointed out this horrific story about a planned evacuee/refugee/detainee site in Oklahoma yesterday afternoon. I'll spare you all another series of long quotes, but the gist is that a woman went with her daughter to donate goods for hurricane survivors to a resort of church-owned cabins in south-central Oklahoma called Falls Creek.

Upon arriving, she's told that the refugees will not be able to use the kitchens, nor will they be able to leave the camp for five months. This is the reason that Valhall writes, "Jesse Jackson was right when he said 'refugees' was not the appropriate word for the poor souls dislocated due to Katrina. But he was wrong about why it is not appropriate. It's not appropriate because they are detainees, not refugees."

[An aside: as of Tuesday night, Falls Creek is officially on standby and won't be receiving evacuees.]

However, the key point is missing from Evan's post, a point that draws a much bigger picture of what's underlying many of the official responses to the hurricane:

The government is deeply afraid of the people that have been displaced by the storm.

Clearly, American culture is one that is governed predominantly by fear: fear of change, fear of the unknown or the uncertain, fear of instant calamity lurking around every corner. We prefer to stay in our cars or our homes, doors locked, viewing the world through the televised portal.

As much as this culture of fear is a creation of the government and aided by the media, stories like Valhall's above and many others illustrate how this fear runs both ways.

Consider the brief but crucial passage from Valhall's story left out of Evan's post:


FEMA will not allow any of the kitchen facilities in any of the cabins to be used by the occupants due to fire hazards. FEMA will deliver meals to the cabins. The refugees will be given two meals per day by FEMA. They will not be able to cook. In fact, the "host" goes on to explain, some churches had already enquired about whether they could come in on weekends and fix meals for the people staying in their cabin. FEMA won't allow it because there could be a situation where one cabin gets steaks and another gets hot dogs - and...
it could cause a riot.
Perhaps not that telling in and of itself, aside from a deeply held and even more deeply irrational belief that the huddled masses are always on the verge of a violent outbreak. But another story from earlier this week further illuminates this fearful mindset among America's authority figures.

Joel Johnson reports for Wired News from the Houston Astrodome on attempts to create a low-power FM station to spread information to the thousands of refugees holed up in the sports complex.

Seems like a good idea, right? Create a simple way to get information to a lot of people, quickly and cheaply? A lot of groups thought so, including, Johnson says, "Houston's Mayor Bill White, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and federal agencies like the FCC and FEMA."

But some of the officials in charge of the situation at the Astrodome were worried.
According to KAMP [the proposed LPFM station], Rita Obey, a local official from Harris County Public Health Services, gave them a laundry list of prerequisites. The most notable of these was the command to procure 10,000 personal, battery-powered radios -- and batteries.
"She said she was afraid of 'people fighting over the radios,'" said Liz Surley, a KAMP volunteer. "She made us promise not to play any rap music, because she thought it might incite some of the evacuees to violence."
In the final tally, Johnson writes, "Obey explained the decision to ultimately refuse the low-power FM station request. 'With limited resources, you err on the side of FEMA and the Red Cross over entertainment.'"

Indeed -- you err on the side of established, federal forces over the much more fluid and often efficient individual responses inspired by experiences on the ground. If you're in the government, you (mis)place your faith in the non-existent leadership skills of the White House and its appointees instead of an adhocracy.

You do this because these federal forces, while lumbering and ineffectual, also come with the backing of the armed forces, in case these profoundly terrifying people, people left to die with no food and water for days on end, people shuttled across the country with no possessions and no idea of when they'll return home, should decide to rise up.

The two stories above are far from unique. A Denver Post article from Wednesday describes a Colorado evacuee center in stark terms:
If I didn't know better, I'd have thought I was peering through the fence at a concentration camp.
The signs on the buildings say "Community College of Aurora," though for now they're serving as an impromptu Camp Katrina. About 160 hurricane survivors are being housed in the dorms, surrounded by fences, roadblocks, security guards and enough armed police officers to invade Grenada.
There's a credentials unit to process every visitor, an intake unit to provide identification tags and a bag of clothes to every evacuee, several Salvation Army food stations, portable toilets, shuttle buses, a green army-tent chapel with church services three times a day and a communications team to keep reporters as far away from actual news as possible.
Reports that federal officials are "requesting" that journalists not photograph or report on dead bodies in the hurricane's wake are all over the Web.

Josh Marshall's assessment is that these are "the marks of repressive government, which mixes inefficiency with authoritarianism." He's definitely correct that our government leans heavily on the secrecy stick when any kind of political or real-world trouble pops up. But because he's also so right about the inefficiency and sheer incompetence of our supposed leaders that I don't foresee any kind of black-helicopters, fascist dictatorship taking over Washington.

Instead, I'm reminded of AlterNet reader cyclone, who wrote last Friday in one of our forums that Bush hadn't sent the National Guard into New Orleans because "he believes the coup has begun, and he may be right."

The are heavy doses paranoia and fear swirling throughout the government's responses to this disaster. But are these signs of a top-down consolidation of power, or are the masses staging a second American Revolution? Or will we all go back to normalcy when the new TV season starts?
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