August 30, 2006

Katrina: Preview of the End-Times?

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:01 am

With the current media focus on the anniversary of Katrina, I’ve been reflecting on all that happened a year ago. I remember reading in the L.A. Times about relief workers being prevented from rescuing patients trapped in hospitals in New Orleans by gunfire. It was reported that New Orleans residents were firing at rescue helicopters.

I remember telling my brother that the one thing I couldn’t understand about the Katrina tragedy was why anyone trapped in New Orleans would shoot at people trying to rescue them from the flood. He told me that the shooters probably felt that “this may be a shithole, but damnit, now it’s my shithole and I’m going to keep it that way.” Very Lord of the Flies-like.

Except that it turns out no one was shooting at the rescue workers. Or shooting at all, apparently.

Reason Magazine debunked this account as a rumor spread by information-starved reporters. Then there were all those rapes and killings at the Superdome which, according to Popular Mechanics, also never happened.

Looking back on it though, we were all primed to believe that, in the absence of armed police to keep order, the poor (and black) New Orleans residents would devolve into violent bands taking advantage of the anarchy to terrorize, pillage and rape. Why do we always assume that, in a crisis where the normal structures of civilization have disappeared, our morality and civility will disappear as well? Some warned that the Y2K bug, where computers weren’t adequately coded to handle the roll-over from the year 1999 to 2000, would lead to massive failures of infrastructure resulting in food riots, anarchy, rampant crime, and the end of civilization as we know it. And look how that turned out.

There is something really titillating about stories of anarchy and mayhem. It’s almost pornographic — there’s a perverse pleasure in thinking about our ability to survive in the midst of a collapsed society, relying on nothing but our wits and our weapons to survive. It’s a recurring theme in science fiction, and was a foundation of the far-right survivalist militia movement from a few years back.

And this theme is a centerpiece of the pre-tribulation rapture eschatology, made even more attractive by the belief that born-again Christians will get to watch it all from plush stadium-style seating up in heaven. It seems that one attraction of the end-times comes from the same impulse as our willingness to believe that those left behind in New Orleans were shooting at rescue workers. It’s a worldview that appeals, like the Jerry Springer show, to our worst natures.

But there is a different way to look at Katrina. NPR aired a segment recounting all the acts of kindness and generosity that took place during Katrina. Instead of spreading rumors of rampant anarchy, we should have been telling stories about the underlying goodness of people and how Katrina brought out the best in humanity, not the worst. In fact, looking back on major catastrophes such as the tidal wave in South Asia or the earthquake in Pakistan, the unifying theme is the generous support the world has provided, and Katrina was no different.

Our desire to believe that we are one catastrophe away from the collapse of civilization and the loss of our humanity is a myth that is propagated by a lurid fascination with the dark side of our souls. This includes the tribulation-obsessed worldview of Left Behind and the Rapture-ists. Instead, let’s remember that catastrophes have always brought out the best in humanity. If there is a tribulation, it will be an opportunity for us all to come together, to aid and comfort each other, and to rise to our most compassionate natures, not our most atavistic.


  1. I always got the feeling that the administration was inches away of declaring martial law.
    Fox news was the worst on the violence and mayhem, most of which did not take place.

    Comment by Diane — August 30, 2006 @ 1:53 pm

  2. There is a flaw in your reasoning: all the Christians will be gone, and we heathen don’t have better natures. Didn’t you get the memo?

    Comment by Lucia — August 31, 2006 @ 8:36 am

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