Dead bodies floating through flooded streets. Politicians crying on television. Cops committing suicide. Death toll expected to be near 10,000.
I've been expecting something like this. Not Hurricane Katrina specifically (although, thanks to a FEMA warning in early 2001 President Bush should have been expecting it—specifically). But I've definitely been waiting for the next apocalyptic news story. An al Qaeda nuke attack on Manhattan? Another stolen election? A pandemic flu that spreads death across the globe? So, while my jaw hit the floor as the devastation in New Orleans became clear, I can't say I'm surprised. Disorder is the new order of things.
We live in an era of apocalyptic triple-decker headlines, where the magnitude of stories just keeps ratcheting upward—and disbelief has become a regular state of mind. This age of apocalyptic headlines started—almost quaintly enough, thinking back now—in December 1999, right here in Seattle. I was awed at the time. The New York Times blared: "National Guard Is Called to Quell Trade-Talk Protests; Seattle Is Under Curfew After Disruptions." Indeed, 50,000 protestors shut down an American city. Tear-gas standoffs with the police led to martial law. USA Today led with "Battle in Seattle."
Ever since the WTO spectacle in 1999 I've come to expect, even desire, historic headlines—and I haven't been disappointed.
In November 2000, we had a sham election in which the U.S. Supreme Court picked the president. "Voters Deadlocked Until Very End." In September 2001, terrorists toppled the World Trade Center, attacked the Pentagon, and killed thousands. "U.S. Attacked." In 2003, it came out that President Bush lied to the country and to the UN about his reasons for taking the country to war. "No Weapons of Mass Destruction Says UN Weapons Inspector." In 2004, American troops were caught—in fucked up photos—violating the Geneva Convention at Abu Ghraib. "Iraqi Recounts Hours of Abuse by U.S. Troops." And then, over Christmas 2004, a giant wave in Southeast Asia killed 250,000 people. "Asia's Deadly Waves: Disaster."
These triple-decker headlines were not examples of New York Post–style sensationalism. All these stories deserved the triple-decker treatment. This week, of course, we've got "New Orleans Begins Search for Its Dead." What could be next?
The escalation in magnitude of these stories has been matched by the language people use to describe them. The word the media settled on for the Gore/Bush standoff was "surreal." The phrase for 9/11 was simply "Oh, my God!" After the tsunami, the media settled on "unprecedented."
In the four years since 9/11 it seemed that we had used up all the exclamatory and dramatic language that was available. There would be, I began to fear, no words left to describe the next apocalyptic event. After a stolen election, 9/11, 2,000 U.S. troops dead, and the tsunami—I was sure we would only be able to greet the next unbelievable news story with slacked jaws and no words.
But Governor Blanco did find a word—she called the situation "untenable"—and I froze. Not only does the word "untenable" beg the horrific question: What kind of situation could possibly come next and upstage an "untenable" one? (A dirty bomb in Manhattan?) But—more startling—by describing the situation in New Orleans as "untenable," Blanco articulated precisely why we're living in an age of escalating crises. The "untenable" situation in New Orleans is a metaphor for the entire disaster-prone Bush era.
Just as Bush cut federal spending on flood control in southeast Louisiana by almost half since 2001—halting prep work on the levees last summer for the first time in 37 years—Bush's broader policies are creating new untenable situations all the time.
Running a huge $315 billion deficit this year while cutting taxes by $3.9 trillion is untenable. Invading Iraq without a plan to restore order is untenable. Denying the realities of science in the face of global warming is untenable. Teaching supernatural explanations in science class is untenable. And, speaking of science, the Bush administration's inattention to the avian flu is creating an untenable situation.
Maybe the avian flu pandemic is the next triple-decker story. This deadly flu has already been reported in several countries throughout Asia, and the World Health Organization is issuing dire warnings. CBC reports: "The WHO says in the best-case scenario, two to seven million people will die in the next pandemic and tens of millions will need medical attention. The organization warns that the global spread of a pandemic can't be stopped—but preparing properly will reduce its impact."
Now I'm scared. "Preparing properly" isn't exactly a strong suit for George "no one anticipated the breach of the levees" Bush. After reading the August 6, 2001, memo warning about an al Qaeda attack in the United States, for example, Bush didn't prepare for bin Laden. Likewise, as we witness the quagmire in Iraq, it's clear that Bush didn't heed the dire warnings from its own intelligence reports that he needed more troops and some kind of plan to rebuild Iraq.
Now, the untenable situation in New Orleans stands as a sad metaphor of Bush's administration, just as footage of America's black underclass drowning in New Orleans stands as a metaphor of Bush's America.