Argus title : Cruelty abroad – and at home
There is a film and photography shop in Brighton that I frequently visit. I go there to do my photocopying.
The manager never counts my copies. It’s a small business, but she trusts me to tell the truth. However busy it is, she and her partner always have time to smile and chat.
This week when I visited, work had been delayed by flooding. The basements of several shops had been saturated and stock had been damaged.
However, she didn’t want to talk about her problems. Instead, she talked about New Orleans. She is a tall handsome woman with a quite beautiful smile. Usually, she is full of laughter. But, on this occasion, she stood unsmiling, her face drawn, her eyes distressed.
“Did you see it?” she asked. “Did you see on television last night…. those old people just left in an old people’s home?” Speaking of the Bush government she asked “How could they do that? How can they just leave people, just because they’re poor?”
She commented about so-called ‘looters’ “Most of those people were taking food because they had nothing….. I just don’t understand. How is it that in this day and age we can’t just help each other. There’s enough to go round, enough of food, enough of everything…all it would take is for everyone who could afford it to give something. Then everyone would have enough. Why can’t they organise it?”
I’m sure she echoed the views of thousands of fellow Britons, who have watched in horror as the victims’ prolonged suffering has unfolded on their television screens.
She is not a politically ‘sophisticated’ person. What she possesses is a deep moral understanding which allows her to empathise with suffering and recognise injustice.
Hers is the simple morality of ordinary people – competent, productive people of good sense – who understand that for a society to thrive its people need to care for and cooperate with each other. And that it is the duty of governments to facilitate this.
Bush’s statements about ‘small government’ are irrelevant nonsense to such a woman. She watched in disbelief and disgust as his administration failed to act. “I don’t like that man” she said quietly”. As I left the shop, she called out “You should write about it, Jean.”
The question is, how best to do so. The grotesque events of the past 2 weeks encapsulate the incompetence and brutality of the Bush administration.
This President, whose family fortune is based upon oil, has stubbornly rejected scientific evidence that greenhouse gases cause global warming, refusing to ratify the Kyoto agreement despite repeated warnings that extreme weather conditions and cataclysmic natural events will become more common and even more destructive.
Bush has set in train a “war on terror”, the centre-piece of which is has been the invasion of Iraq, an oil-rich country with an appalling human rights record, but no known links with international terrorism.
As a result, the country has descended into chaos and has become a fertile recruiting ground for terrorists. Despite the legal obligation of occupying forces to maintain good order, human rights violations have occurred routinely and many Iraqis lack basic necessities of modern life, such as running water and electricity. Civilians regularly complain that US troops are indifferent to their suffering.
The burden of the war on the US economy is huge, currently costing $5 billion a month. This is why the President cut federal funds for essential flood protection in places such as New Orleans – despite repeated warnings from academics in the USA and the UK that the rise in water temperature would make hurricanes in this area more frequent and potentially disastrous.
The authorities knew, well in advance, that there were no evacuation plans for the very poor. Despite this, nothing was done to ensure transport or support.
At the time Katrina struck, one third of the State’s National Guard were ‘peace keeping’ in Iraq. In that country, at about the same time, a religious march of Shia Muslims lapsed into chaos as shots were fired and rumours circulated that a suicide bomber had targeted the crowd.
Under the gaze of soldiers from the wealthiest and best equipped army in the world, around a thousand civilians died of crush injuries on a bridge, many of them women and children.
Despite all this, the President continued with his summer holiday. He attended a fundraising event and was seen strumming a guitar. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice went shoe shopping and later attended a musical.
When he finally did speak, the President told those he had abandoned to ‘maintain standards’ and not steal. When Rice spoke it was to utter specious assurances that racism played no part in the treatment of the poor of New Orleans.
As the horror of Hurricane Katrina unfolded, it became painfully obvious that the US government was less concerned with saving lives than with protecting property. While politicians condemned ‘looters’, shocked journalists brought us image after image of ordinary people suffering – babies with no formula milk, diabetics without insulin, old people dying of dehydration.
And as bloated bodies drifted in the polluted floodwater, Bush mouthed smiling platitudes about the ‘rebuilding’ of New Orleans. When the troops were finally sent in, it was with orders to “shoot to kill” looters.
Aggressive and heavily armed troops are now regularly shown on our television screens, often body searching already traumatised families. There is little evidence of respect or kindness or a desire to help frail vulnerable people. In fact, troops behave like an occupying force, treating their fellow citizens as a subject people and making no effort to collect bodies rotting on pavements or floating in the foul-smelling water.
On Wednesday night I watched film of journalists pleading with troops to help an elderly Black man who wished to leave. The soldiers simply turned their backs.
People in countries not allied to the USA regularly see evidence of the US military’s incompetence and aggression – whether or real life or on television. However, here in the UK, we rarely do. We are, after all, allies in the same illegal occupation.
But, New Orleans is not a war zone. And the people suffering are not foreign civilians, but US citizens. Those covering events are not ‘embedded’ war correspondents, but are shocked journalists appalled at what they have seen. They and their employers seem less willing to ‘sanitise’ accounts of these events.
As a result, for the first time, many people in the UK have seen something of the nature of the beast – in its day to day cruelty and indifference to the suffering of civilians.
And through it all – arrogantly indifferent to any damage to his reputation – George Bush smiles. There is something about that small smile which chills the soul.
We are used to the insincere grins of politicians. But, there is something quite other about George Bush’s smile as he calls for “prayer”.
The key is in the eyes. Some times, when Bush is confused or challenged, the smile becomes a grimace and he lowers his head, eyes flickering back and forth. One of his own army ‘interrogators’ could tell him that this is a characteristic ‘liar response’.
At times, he presents as an avuncular, figure replete with self-satisfaction, crinkling deep-set eyes as he smiles – in role as what historian Simon Schama has called “the moral guardian of the nation”.
However, Bush is truly himself only when he imposes his will, knowing that what he says will cause distress. At such times, he smiles and looks straight at the camera.
This smile is cruel. It seems to say “I know this will cause pain, but there is nothing you can do about it. You may think I’m stupid, but I have the power and not you. In fact, I enjoy this.”
It is the smile of a small boy pulling the wings off flies. It is the smile of a tyrant.