Saturday, August 8, 2009

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

You MUST read Zeitoun. Especially if you live in one of those areas -- like I do -- that can be struck by a natural disaster. Most of us do now, don’t you think? With global warming, there are more fierce hurricanes, more tornados. And just the other day I looked at an old National Geographic magazine’s map of where earthquake areas are in the world -- there’s a lot of them! And I live in the San Francisco Bay Area ... so we think about them all the time -- that is when we’re not in a state of denial.

Ms. Manitoba struggles all the time with “must” when it comes to giving advice to other people. Who am I to tell you what to do? Will you forgive me this one time? Because if you do, you will learn some important things by reading this book.

You better hope hope hope and pray (if so inclined) that you are never in a natural disaster of huge proportions like the poor folks in New Orleans were! The natural disaster parts are bad enough ... but what is far worse is the army of “helpers” who come in later: National Guard, FEMA, law enforcement from other areas. That’s when the real tragedy will happen. These people don’t know you. They’ve been told to watch for looters. And like one of the quotes in the front matter of this important book: To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Every person looks like a looter. Or a terrorist if you’re Arab or Muslim.

That's what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun. At the time of Katrina, he was (and still is) a citizen and successful businessman in New Orleans. Think of it: you're well-known by your community and a successful businessman -- yet, after Katrina, you are thought of as a looter and terrorist. Without any proof. No evidence whatsoever. No hearing for weeks. No phone call. The phone call. It's that special part of the U.S. judicial system: the phone call. We're taught about this all the time as children: if you're arrested, you get a phone call. The worst serial killer gets a phone call.

Don't count on it after a disaster. In a disaster with our friends from FEMA in control you become one of the Disappeared -- and yes, they are the ones in control -- and now that they are a part of Homeland Security they have even more control and an even worse attitude -- to an employee from FEMA, everyone looks like a looter and a terrorist.

And what about you, woman in your 70s -- do you really think your safe? Read about the tale of Merlene Maten. She was 73 and a diabetic. She and her husband had fled their home before the hurricane and checked into a downtown hotel thinking they would be safer there. After three days, Maten went down to their car in the parking lot next door to get some food they had in the car. She was arrested for looting. It made no sense! Yet she was arrested anyway. Folks, this is what is so striking when you read this book: the “helpers” -- law enforcement, National Guards or whatever -- do not listen to you if you are just regular folks. Remember, you’re a nobody. They don’t listen to your story ... they don’t look at the real facts: your 73 and diabetic and you’re at *your* car getting food. They don’t take the time to see if you really are checked into that hotel next door. They just arrest you.
You better hope hope hope and pray that a disaster doesn’t head your way.

We can fool ourselves sometimes into thinking that the system works pretty well. But in a disaster? Horrible consequences. Nothing works. Or, let me put it another way: it works against you. Remember, you’re a nobody. You’re not wealthy. No one will listen to you. The guy with the hammer sees you as a nail. An excerpt:

... Even if in New Orleans, this machinery was sometimes slow, or poorly engineered, generally it functioned.

But now nothing worked. Or rather, every piece of machinery -- the police, the military, the prisons -- that was meant to protect people like him [Zeitoun] was devouring anyone who got close. He had long believed that the police acted in the best interests of the citiziens they served. That the military was accountable, reasonable, and was kept in check by concentric circles of regulations, laws, common sense, common decency.

But now those hopes could be put to rest.

This country was not unique. This country was fallible. Mistakes were being made. He was a mistake. In the grand scheme of the country’s blind, grasping fight against threats seen and unseen, there would be mistakes made. Innocents would be suspected. Innocents would be imprisoned.

You come to realize too that the priorities by those “helpers” were removing people off the streets -- not matter their reasons for being on the streets -- and building enclosures to put all the people they arrested.

All of this reminds me of Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine. As amazon says:
Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine advances a truly unnerving argument: historically, while people were reeling from natural disasters, wars and economic upheavals, savvy politicians and industry leaders nefariously implemented policies that would never have passed during less muddled times.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is why civilian review boards are so vitally important. All policing powers must be held accountable at all times. Even more so during a disaster. There is just too much temptation for many people that when they are in a situation of power they use it to the detriment of others. I chose my words carefully: “for many people”, not all people. And when a situation is tense, you’re feeling nervous and fearful, the mind leaps. The muscles are jumpy. You overcompensate. You strike with greater force.

I want to thank Dave Eggers for writing this book -- and for all the important things he does with his abundant energy. Good stuff. Thanks. From deep down. I hadn't read any of his books before, glad I started with this one.

The writing is so very good too. The book is a page-turner. It's not depressing at all. The book has a main story -- the story about the Zeitouns -- plus lots of other very interesting stories. Although watch out! If you were mad about how folks in New Orleans were treated before -- WATCH OUT -- you're gonna be furious by the time you finish this book.

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