Viewpoint: Uncertainty grips a fearful electorate

“Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them”—Peter Ustinov

That we live in strange and perilous times can hardly be denied. Not so many months ago, a majority of the country was firmly united in the aftermath of 9/11 in the belief that we were a great and noble nation pursuing noble ideals.

Then came Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, and more recently, Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. These cataclysmic events have caused more of us to abandon such certainty and wonder where are we headed and what can we do.

Tony Stephens, a reporter for the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald, has been crossing the country, sampling American opinion and testing the mood of the country.

He finds much uncertainty. In a piece for his newspaper, he wrote: “You see it at the Greyhound bus station in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, about an hour’s drive from Peoria, thrice elected the All-America city. Richard Nixon famously asked his aides of the merit of certain policies: “Will it play in Peoria?”

One policy that definitely is not playing is the war in Iraq. Some 60 percent of us are opposed to it, and want our troops out of that miserable Mideastern morass. Some see a definite link between that war and Hurricane Katrina, which nearly destroyed New Orleans.

Stephens said one positive result of the Gulf Coast devastation is that Americans now have more awareness of the degree of poverty and racism in this country. President George W. Bush himself said poverty “has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America.”

The Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, who is president of a coalition of mainly black churches, told Stephens: “Katrina has posed a challenge to the White House and the country regarding the great divide, which is race and class in America.”

The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported 1.1 million more Americans slipped into poverty last year. Poverty rates have climbed for each of the last four years. Under Bush, the poor have increased by 17 percent to reach 12.7 percent of the population.

Most of us still subscribe to the Declaration’s assertions about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but how much liberty is left? And can curtailment of liberty, and even life, be far behind?

Right after Katrina ripped through New Orleans, the men from Blackwater USA arrived. They are a private security company, reportedly operating under a federal contract. About 150 of them, heavily armed and in full battle dress, were in the Big Easy ahead of anybody—FEMA, Red Cross, National Guard, Army or any other rescuers.

Some rode through the streets of the wrecked city in SUVs with tinted windows, according to Jeremy Scahill, writing in The Nation. Others used an unmarked and unlicensed car to patrol the French Quarter.

One boasted of being part of a security detail for L. Paul Bremer, former head of the U.S. occupation in Iraq and former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte. Another complained of drawing only $350 a day, plus his per diem. “When they told me New Orleans, I said: ‘What country is that in?’,” according to the article.

One of the men said they were operating under a contract with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and that one of his colleagues had been deputized by the governor of Louisiana. The man held up a gold law enforcement badge he was wearing around his neck. “We can make arrests and use lethal force if we deem it necessary,” he said.

Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, was outraged. “This vigilantism demonstrates the utter breakdown of the government,” he told The Nation. “These private security forces have behaved brutally, with impunity, in Iraq. To have them now on the streets of New Orleans is frightening and possibly illegal.”

Blackwater is not alone. Within two weeks after Katrina, some 235 security companies were registered in Louisiana. Companies like DynCorp, Intercon, American Security Group, Wackenhut and an Israeli company called Instinctive Shooting International, were hired to guard private homes and businesses as well as government projects and institutions. Some of these firms are under federal contracts like Blackwater, while others are working for wealthy Orleanians.

These private mercenaries are joining the 82nd Airborne and other federal troops in restoring order to the Crescent City, and at the same time, allowing President Bush to undermine the Posse Comitatus Act, the Civil War-era legislation barring the use of federal troops for domestic law enforcement.

As one of the Blackwater employees told Scahill: “This is a trend. You’re going to see a lot more guys like us in these situations.”

Liberty? Could it be that ours is slipping away before our eyes? Katrina brought out the predatory instincts of the corporate world. It is claimed that an hour after storm damage at New Orleans was reported, service stations, suppliers and refiners cranked up their prices on gasoline.

Most Americans probably never will know how close we came to losing the country with Rita. Fortunately, the storm altered its course before striking the coast and did not visit its strongest force on the refinery complexes near Galveston and Houston. Had it done so, we would have soon felt the pain of shortages, higher prices, mammoth unemployment and collapse of the markets. As it is, the full extent of Rita’s wrath won’t be known for a few more days.

The country is addicted to cheap energy. It has driven the economy for years, permitting urban sprawl and environmental breakdown, which may now be irreversible. The effects of Katrina and Rita will be felt in the months ahead, and it is going to hurt more than if we had reached $3 a gallon gas in 1973.

Wal-Mart shoppers already are choosing a tank of gas over cheap plastic junk. Those enormous gas hogs are parked alongside highways across the country with signs offering huge discounts just to unload them.

A taxi driver in Springfield was asked if he thought President Bush could fix things. “He couldn’t fix lunch,” he said. In Burlington, Vt., Susan Callahan, retired from the University of Vermont, said: “The jig is up.”

From the Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2005, issue

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