I am drawing to the end of my college career. I graduate in June, and closer to then there will probably be a nostalgic what-it-means-to-me in general sort of post. I had every faith in the college system coming to Northwestern, and since then that has largely disintegrated, but that is a bigger story than the one I aim for today.
I am a journalist who is graduating with a journalism degree who hates journalism. I don’t hate what it stands for, and good pieces of it still move me more than most other forms of writing ever could, but I don’t like the politics of journalism. I don’t like the pitching, the angles, the pre-destined and plotted plan for something being delivered under the label of unaltered “truth.” And writing within this system of forces not only makes me feel as though myself and my work is fake, I also feel like I am alternately begging or harassing people to “puleeaase be my source!” to write a mediocre story that I already decided the plot of. It’s bad truth and it’s bad fiction.
Because of this, I turned to media design. I love what I do, but in college, I have taken one class that has pertained to what I plan to spend my life making a living off of. I also majored in English lit because I love to read books as much as write. So regularly, I find myself stopping and asking what did I get out of this place? And the things that I will take away are not in my career field so much as my outlook on life.
It was one of those English classes that lead me to a number of deeply enlightening works, my favorites being The Ugly American and Zeitoun. The Ugly American is deeply interesting and worth the read if you’re interested in the failures of American global policy and the loss of the Vietnam War, but what I really want to think about is Dave Eggers’ masterpiece of both journalism and novel in Zeitoun.
I have never read anything of Eggers before, who has written multiple hailed things, including The Wild Things, his reworking of my favorite children’s novel (RIP Maurice Sendak,) as well as being the editor of the one-of-a-kind literary journal McSweeney’s that also produces books and the magazine The Believer. He’s from Chicago and got his journalism degree from the University of Illinois, the campus I grew up around. Not only does this proximity tickle me, but the quality of his work gives me hope not just for nonfiction literature and journalism, but also for my own career.
Zeitoun follows a Muslim family by the last name of Zeitoun through their experience of Hurricane Katrina and its intersection with the war on terror. It is written superbly and filled with details and quality that leave you hyper-aware of how much work he put into this. While that is disheartening, the idea that I could combine my two loves and give a real story is compelling to me.
That being said, perhaps you are wondering as I was, that there is an intersection of the hurricane with the war on terror?? Yes, while this book gives me hope for my own career, it crushes hope and faith in the bureaucracy of America and its government.
On the whole, this book told the interesting story of one good man who stayed in New Orleans for the hurricane while his family left, and what he did in the underwater city, saving parts of his house and helping countless others.
While he is an upstanding American citizen, in many ways doing more to help victims than the officials sent to deal with it, he is arrested on his own property for “looting,” based on the observation of belongings in a hallway moved to avoid water damage, and taken to a jail with 3 companions that was erected in New Orleans in the image of Guantanamo Bay, just two days after the hurricane.
While people were drowning and trapped in their attics dying, the U.S. government was using prisoners of the area to erect an elaborate prison system on high ground. They then perpetuated tales of extreme and violent horrors that led officers to arrest countless innocent individuals, instead of focusing on helping the victims.
Not only that, one has to beg the question that is anyone really looting anything of enormous value in a city underwater where you have to have a boat to transport anything? And if what’s being taken is food and water, is that really a crime in a situation of death and disease and struggle in great crisis when if it’s not stolen, it will probably be destroyed by water anyway?
He and his companions, two of them white, are then accused of being Al Qaeda and terrorists, and held against their will. They were never read their rights, officially charged or given a phone call, but they were subjugated to full-body cavity searches and then kept in an outdoor prison for days before being taken to a high security prison. Their loved ones assumed they died with the prolonged lack of contact. He spent less than two months there, while his companions spent five to eight in that prison. Even though the Department of Homeland Security told them it was a misunderstanding, and that they were guilty of no crime, they were not released. The prison officials wouldn’t deal with them because it was FEMA’s problem, and they never received hearings or trials. Instead, he had to pay $10,000 in bail for being on his own property.
This was all in the name of fighting terrorism. The book then outlines the Department of Homeland Security’s memo which discussed the terrorist opportunities in a post-hurricane city, saying “Several types of exploitation or attacks may potentially be conducted through the hurricane cycle…” Before the storm, the could use the occasion to observes emergency response resources and operation plans, or target evacuation routes to cause mass panic. They said an attack was “less likely” during the storm, but after, they might build on public panic by disseminating rumors and increase media coverage.
WHAT?! First of all, what terrorist is going to risk losing his life without making any sort of statement by chilling in the path of the worst hurricane we’ve ever had just to observe evacuation routes? Also, where was he staying since the city, therefore hotels, was mandatorily evacuated? And gee, really, it’s only less likely that they will attack during the storm? And are they really making observations post-hurricane in a city underwater? And they don’t need to make rumors and increase media coverage, the government spread the rumors of mass crime and babies raped in the Superdome while really building a prison. And their botched handling of the whole affair increased media coverage and rumors on its own.
It bewilders me that watching a city of people dying from a natural disaster makes a government official think, now, what can we do about the possibilities for terrorism? How about you focus on the issues at hand dude? Also, apparently, our government doesn’t quite understand terrorism. It is meant to make an impact. Attacking a place where a huge chunk of the people left in it were just killed by water, all the property is already destroyed, and everyone with the right pay-grade has already left, isn’t making much of a statement. In fact, that would be them saying, “Look, we can kill poor people like you in the American government too!” Not usually what they’re striving for.
I had had no idea that these war on terrorism ideologies affected policy and response in Hurricane Katrina; and once again, on many counts, I left the book feeling ashamed of the way our government handles things, the people it will sacrifice in the name of a cause many citizens were at that point ambivalent about, and the human rights it will violate to reach its ends. And most importantly, on the ability they now have to so deeply transgress the basic freedoms of anyone on the slightest suspicion of terrorism, and then arrest you anywhere in the world and take you anywhere in the world without ever reading a charge. The stuff of science fiction and people disappearing into the system V for Vendetta style has come, and I question how far I am willing to watch this country lose sight of its values and foundation before I go live with all the hot accented British men.
“I’d only told them the truth. Was that so selfish? Our integrity sells for so little, but it is all we really have. It is the very last inch of us, but within that inch, we are free.” –V for Vendetta