Today's New Orleans Times-Picayune has a story alleging that many of the reports of murder and mayhem in the Superdome and the Convention Center after Hurricane Katrina were urban myths:
"Following days of internationally reported killings, rapes and gang violence inside the Dome, the doctor from FEMA - Beron doesn't remember his name - came prepared for a grisly scene: He brought a refrigerated 18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies.
"I've got a report of 200 bodies in the Dome," Beron recalls the doctor saying.
The real total was six, Beron said.
Of those, four died of natural causes, one overdosed and another jumped to his death in an apparent suicide, said Beron, who personally oversaw the turning over of bodies from a Dome freezer, where they lay atop melting bags of ice. State health department officials in charge of body recovery put the official death count at the Dome at 10, but Beron said the other four bodies were found in the street near the Dome, not inside it. Both sources said no one had been killed inside.
At the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, just four bodies were recovered, despites reports of corpses piled inside the building. Only one of the dead appeared to have been slain, said health and law enforcement officials. (...)
As floodwaters forced tens of thousands of evacuees into the Dome and Convention Center, news of unspeakable acts poured out of the nation's media: evacuees firing at helicopters trying to save them; women, children and even babies raped with abandon; people killed for food and water; a 7-year-old raped and killed at the Convention Center. Police, according to their chief, Eddie Compass, found themselves in multiple shootouts inside both shelters, and were forced to race toward muzzle flashes through the dark to disarm the criminals; snipers supposedly fired at doctors and soldiers from downtown high-rises.
In interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Compass reported rapes of "babies," and Mayor Ray Nagin spoke of "hundreds of armed gang members" killing and raping people inside the Dome. Unidentified evacuees told of children stepping over so many bodies, "we couldn't count."
The picture that emerged was one of the impoverished, masses of flood victims resorting to utter depravity, randomly attacking each other, as well as the police trying to protect them and the rescue workers trying to save them. Nagin told Winfrey the crowd has descended to an "almost animalistic state."
Four weeks after the storm, few of the widely reported atrocities have been backed with evidence. The piles of bodies never materialized, and soldiers, police officers and rescue personnel on the front lines say that although anarchy reigned at times and people suffered unimaginable indignities, most of the worst crimes reported at the time never happened. (...)
Rumors of rampant violence at the Convention Center prompted Louisiana National Guard Lt. Col. Jacques Thibodeaux put together a 1,000-man force of soldiers and police in full battle gear to secure the center Sept. 2 at about noon.
It took only 20 minutes to take control, and soldiers met no resistance, Thibodeaux said. What the soldiers found - elderly people and infants near death without food, water and medicine; crowds living in filth - shocked them more than anything they'd seen in combat zones overseas. But they found no evidence, witnesses or victims of any killings, rapes or beatings, Thibodeaux said. Another commander at the scene, Lt. Col. John Edwards of the Arkansas National Guard, said the crowd welcomed the soldiers. "It reminded me of the liberation of France in World War II. There were people cheering; one boy even saluted," he said. "We never - never once - encountered any hostility."
One widely circulated tale, told to The Times-Picayune by a slew of evacuees and two Arkansas National Guardsmen, held that "30 or 40 bodies" were stored in a Convention Center freezer. But a formal Arkansas Guard review of the matter later found that no soldier had actually seen the corpses, and that the information came from rumors in the food line for military, police and rescue workers in front of Harrah's New Orleans Casino, said Edwards, who conducted the review."
So: what's going on?
Personally, I don't think there's much to be said for John Hinderaker's suggestion that this involved deliberate malfeasance by the media, let alone "a deliberate effort to damage the Bush administration by passing on unconfirmed rumors as fact." As our long-time readers know, I have no particular love for the media, but in this case, according to the Times-Picayune story, more or less everyone seems to have made the same mistake. Moreover, the three kinds of sources the story names are evacuees, officials, and "rumors in the food line for military, police and rescue workers in front of Harrah's New Orleans Casino". The first and third are groups of people who had been in the Superdome, and might have been expected to know what they were talking about.
In particular, the stories reporters got from officials should have been trustworthy, but apparently they weren't:
""People would be shooting at us, and we couldn't shoot back because of the families," Compass told a reporter from the (Bridgeport) Connecticut Post who interviewed him at the Saints' Monday Night Football game in New York, where he was the guest of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. "All we could do is rush toward the flash."
Compass added that he and his officers succeeded in wrestling 30 weapons from criminals using the follow-the-muzzle-flash technique, the story said. "We got 30 that way," Compass was quoted as saying.
Asked about the muzzle-flash story last week, Compass said, "That really happened" to Winn's SWAT team at the Convention Center. But Winn, when asked about alleged shootouts in a separate interview, said his unit saw muzzle flashes and heard gunshots only one time. Despite aggressively frisking a number of suspects, the team recovered no weapons. His unit never found anyone who had been shot."
I mention this story, and not e.g. Mayor Nagin's statements about what was happening in the Superdome, because while Nagin may, for all I know, have been getting his information from the media, in this case Compass, the Police Chief, is clearly citing his own officers as his source, and he is apparently wrong. It's hard to see that the media is to blame for reporting unfounded rumors when they had sources like that.
Moreover, the T-P story cites a number of cases in which several evacuees independently described similar incidents, but those incidents seemed to have no basis in fact. This is important: if I were reporting this story and someone who had been in the Superdome or the Convention Center told me about some horrible incident, I would want to check it out and corroborate it before I wrote about it. But if lots of people had heard the same unsubstantiated rumor and accepted it as fact, then they might all claim to know that it had happened, and provide me with similar details, even though it wasn't true. Thus:
"But other accusations that have gained wide currency are more demonstrably false. For instance, no one found the body of a girl - whose age was estimated at anywhere from 7 to 13 - who, according to multiple reports, was raped and killed with a knife to the throat at the Convention Center. Many evacuees at the Convention Center the morning of Sept. 3 treated the story as gospel, and ticked off further atrocities: a baby trampled to death, multiple child rapes.
Salvatore Hall, standing on the corner of Julia Street and Convention Center Boulevard that day, just before the evacuation, said, "They raped and killed a 10-year-old in the bathroom." Neither he nor the many people around him who corroborated the killing had seen it themselves.
Talk of rape and killing inside the Dome was so pervasive that it prompted a steady stream of evacuees to begin leaving Aug. 31, braving thigh-high foul waters on Poydras Street. Many said they were headed back to homes in flooded neighborhoods. "There's people getting raped and killed in there," said Lisa Washington of Algiers, who had come to the Dome with about 25 relatives and friends. "People are getting diseases. It's like we're in Afghanistan. We're fighting for our lives right now."
One of her relatives nodded. "They've had about 14 rapes in there," he said."
"One widely circulated tale, told to The Times-Picayune by a slew of evacuees and two Arkansas National Guardsmen, held that "30 or 40 bodies" were stored in a Convention Center freezer. But a formal Arkansas Guard review of the matter later found that no soldier had actually seen the corpses, and that the information came from rumors in the food line for military, police and rescue workers in front of Harrah's New Orleans Casino, said Edwards, who conducted the review."
Taking all this together, it sounds to me as though rumors were swirling around both the Convention Center and the Superdome, as you'd expect, given that the people there were terrified, were living in nearly unbearable conditions, and had no control whatsoever over any of the forces that were governing their lives. Those are exactly the conditions in which our normal propensity to try to make sense of our surroundings goes into a sort of panicked overdrive; in which theories and stories and rumors swirl all around, and people desperate for information grab hold of them; and in which panic overrides many people's normal skepticism and epistemic caution.
This means that if you were a reporter, and you were trying to do your job right, you might have interviewed a bunch of people who didn't know each other, who all claimed to know that some event took place, and who all gave similar details. You might have heard that story confirmed by officials or staff and rescue personnel. You would, in short, have every reason to think it was true that you could have short of having witnessed it yourself; and presumably no one thinks that the media should report only what they have first-hand knowledge of. You might therefore report what you heard. And you would be wrong. Postulating a media conspiracy, in these circumstances, seems to me gratuitous.
There is, however, one thing that I think the media could have done differently, something that would have helped a lot, namely: to have some of their reporters not just interview people at the Superdome or the Convention Center, but actually stay there. I think this would have been worthwhile, at least for organizations with a decent number of reporters covering this story; at any rate, it's hard for me to see why it would have been less worthwhile than embedding reporters with our troops in Iraq. (In both cases, the reporter gives up a larger overview of a story for an in-depth look at what it's like to be part of a group of people: troops in one case, evacuees in the other.) Had media outlets done this, they would have been in a much better position to check out the stories of murder and mayhem for themselves, and to notice that none of them seemed to have either victims or supporting evidence.
Why didn't any media outlet do this? I don't know. Possibly comfort was an issue, but that didn't stop them from embedding reporters in Iraq. Perhaps, at first, the answer might have been that no one knew that there would be a story in the Superdome, let alone the Convention Center. By Tuesday afternoon, though, it was pretty clear that there might be a story to be covered there. So why did no enterprising reporter decide to stay there? I suspect, entirely without evidence, that at least part of the answer is fear, the fear provoked by the very stories we're discussing. If you thought that people were being raped and murdered in the Superdome, you would have to wonder about the wisdom of staying there. This would be especially true if you were white.
And this brings me to what I suspect is one of the underlying issues in this story, namely: race.
When Katrina first hit, and people started asking about the role of race in the response to it, I basically agreed with this post on Legal Fiction, the gist of which is: race has everything to do with why poor people generally, and the poor of New Orleans in particular, are disproportionately black. It also has something to do with why we continue to tolerate so much poverty: privileged people of the sort who make policy often have no actual contact with the poor, and thus no sense of what their lives are actually like, and the reasons why the privileged live in this sort of bubble themselves derive in part from past racism. But racism does not directly explain much about the response to Katrina. (For the record, I think that while Bush is not above playing the race card when he has to -- Bob Jones University, McCain's alleged illegitimate black child, etc. -- he is indifferent to the poor in an equal opportunity, across-the-board sort of way, not specially indifferent to poor black people.)
I haven't changed my mind about Bush, but I have changed my mind about the role of race in the response to Katrina more generally. Two things account for this. The first was the horrible episode at Gretna, where the police shut down the bridge out of the city and prevented people from leaving at gunpoint. The Gretna Police Chief said: "If we had opened the bridge, our city would have looked like New Orleans does now: looted, burned and pillaged." I do not believe that he would have reacted similarly to a crowd of desperate white evacuees. I do not believe that he would have assumed that they would have looted and burned his town, especially not if there were children and senior citizens among them. I think that the obvious option of letting mothers with children, the sick, and the elderly cross the bridge would have occurred to him. And if I'm right, then race had everything to do with the fact that the people at the Convention Center were trapped in the city for days.
The second was reading Digby, especially this post. Here's the crucial part:
"Here's a good example of what I'm talking about. This slide show of the destruction of the city from the beginning of the hurricane until the photographer managed to finally get out on day four is spectacular. Look all the way through it. It's great. When he finally realized that he would have to evacuate from the city he went to the convention center with a friend as authorities told him to do. And when he got there he saw long lines of people. This is the caption to his picture:
"My jaw dropped and a sudden state of fear grasped my body. However, I maintained utter calmness. It was obvious that they were NOT going to help these people evacuate any time soon. They had been forgotten and obviously and shamelessly ignored. And it was evident that Andy and I were merely two specs of salt in a sea of pepper. Not only would we have to wait forever, but more than anything, we would probably suffer dire conditions after it would be obvious that we wouldn't "fit in". It was clear to me that we would have to find another way out. We left the Convention Center and my first intuition is to walk around the city. I wanted to clear my head, but I also had a weird and crazy plan in mind."
This was number 193 out of 197 pictures with captions. In earlier pictures he was pretty judgmental about looters but I thought that he was maybe just a law and order type. He is also Nicaraguan, so I didn't chalk up his vague condemnation of looters to racism although I've known many non-whites who actively dislike black people. And I don't chalk the above to overt racism. It is, as I've pounded the last few days, a sub-conscious fear of the black mob. If you look at that picture (#193) you don't see a rampaging mob. You see a bunch of black people standing around. He sees their plight. But he also assumes that he is personally in danger because he doesn't "fit in." He had been walking around lawless New Orleans taking pictures throughout the crisis and the only time he expressed fear for his personal safety was when something exploded nearby. But when faced with a large group of African Americans he immediately feels terribly threatened. He is proud that he "maintained utter calmness" in the face of it.
That's subconscious racism. And many white people succumb to it without even knowing what they are doing. The New York Times reported that the Louisiana authorities were "terrified" --- just as this guy was frozen with fear. He is not a bad person. Neither are most of the cops or the others who succumbed to this fear. They just do not know themselves. And that lack of self-knowledge ends up coloring their decisions, both political and social, in ways they don't understand."
I have absolutely no idea whether or not any of the people involved with the recovery effort are, in any conscious way, racist. I do suspect, though, that the sort of thing Digby describes in the passage I just quoted is pretty common. Because I think this, I am inclined to suspect that while the reason that rumors started in the Convention Center and the Superdome probably had more to do with the psychology of terrified crowds than with anything else, the reason those stories were so readily accepted by so many people, including people in authority and people in the media, probably had to do with the fact that they concerned crowds of black people, in particular. Again, not necessarily because of any conscious bias at all, but because there are people who find large crowds of African Americans viscerally threatening. It's the sort of thing the speaker is trying to counter in this excerpt from the Times-Picayune story:
""Some of these guys look like thugs, with pants hanging down around their asses," he said. "But they were working their asses off, grabbing litters and running with people to the (New Orleans) Arena" next door, which housed the medical operation."
That is: they are good people, even though you might take them for thugs if you judged by their appearance. What I'm talking about is the reaction behind that initial judgment.
Fear of the crowds and the supposedly lawless conditions in the Superdome and the Convention Center had everything to do with the slowness of the response. Recall:
"Rumors of rampant violence at the Convention Center prompted Louisiana National Guard Lt. Col. Jacques Thibodeaux put together a 1,000-man force of soldiers and police in full battle gear to secure the center Sept. 2 at about noon.
It took only 20 minutes to take control, and soldiers met no resistance, Thibodeaux said. What the soldiers found - elderly people and infants near death without food, water and medicine; crowds living in filth - shocked them more than anything they'd seen in combat zones overseas. But they found no evidence, witnesses or victims of any killings, rapes or beatings, Thibodeaux said. "
And here's a spokesman for the National Guard at a DoD briefing (emphases added):
" We waited until we had enough force in place to do an overwhelming force. Went in with police powers, 1,000 National Guard military policemen under the command and control of the adjutant general of the State of Louisiana, Major General Landreneau, yesterday shortly after noon stormed the convention center, for lack of a better term, and there was absolutely no opposition, complete cooperation, and we attribute that to an excellent plan, superbly executed with great military precision. It was rather complex. It was executed absolutely flawlessly in that there was no violent resistance, no one injured, no one shot, even though there were stabbed, even though there were weapons in the area. There were no soldiers injured and we did not have to fire a shot.
Some people asked why didn't we go in sooner. Had we gone in with less force it may have been challenged, innocents may have been caught in a fight between the Guard military police and those who did not want to be processed or apprehended, and we would put innocents' lives at risk. As soon as we could mass the appropriate force, which we flew in from all over the states at the rate of 1,400 a day, they were immediately moved off the tail gates of C-130 aircraft flown by the Air National Guard, moved right to the scene, briefed, rehearsed, and then they went in and took this convention center down."
The National Guard had to go in first, to establish order. They did not go in until they had "an overwhelming force", a force large enough to meet the security challenge they thought they would face. Their views about how large a challenge that was -- how threatening the crowds were, how much violence they might have to deal with -- are obviously the sorts of judgments that could be affected by any visceral reaction to large crowds of blacks that they might have, and also by reports made by others who had such reactions. And in this way, racism might well have delayed the response, perhaps significantly.
Here, accurate reporting by the media might have made all the difference. Had there been reporters in the Superdome who could have checked out the stories and realized that there were no victims, no bodies, and no evidence beyond rumors, and had their reports made it into the mainstream media (as they surely would have), they might have injected reality into the swirl of fear. But there weren't. And I suspect that among the reasons why no reporter did stay in the Superdome or the Convention Center was the very fear their reporting might have helped to counter.