I've spent days scrutinizing satellite photos of New Orleans, helping people check out their houses. Inevitably, if they or their neighbors had a swimming pool, the turquoise blue of the pool visible on the pre-Katrina image is black on Digital Globe's shots from August 31st 10 AM. Also, as I said in a previous post, I was pretty certain that certain corporate names, familiar from the mercenary industry in Iraq, were going to turn up in New Orleans. So this evening I got an email from Patrick Nielsen Hayden informing me that Blackwater's in New Orleans. Bodyguards to the coalition, they have a certain cowboy reputation among the private "security" firms. The style of their website tends to be a little over-the-top macho in comparison to other private military firms, whose websites tend to mimic accounting firms, as though it was sercurities (in the plural) they were selling, rather than "security."
And, yes, those were Blackwater guys who died in Falluja, touching off the public revelation that at Paul Bremer's instigation, Iraq was awash in mercenaries who were pulling down salaries ten times what the American troops stationed there were making. Blackwater. From a novelistic standpoint, it is inevitable that they would turn up in the city in which there is so much water and on the satellite photos it looks like a black stain. And really, when you hire mercenaries, a certain amount of murkiness about accountability is part of what you are paying for. I lost track: were any of the private contractors implicated in the torture documented in the Taguba report ever actually charged with anything? What ever happened to John Israel and Steve Stephanowitz?
Sending Blackwater into New Orleans is the twenty-first century's sad answer to that quaint twentieth-century phrase "send in the marines." It is the public confession that too much of our infrastructure has been "privatized," by which we mean that services formerly provided by government employees accountable to the American people can now be purchased, often at much higher prices, from the private sector, opening up much larger opportunities for war (and now disaster) profiteering. This is not to say that there aren't talented, strong, idealistic young men working for companies like Blackwater. But rather the privatization of these areas of endeavor, in light of the Iraq experience, is part cynical exercise in looting of the public treasuries, and part liberating the government from the burdensome accountability that keeps public employees from behaving like action heroes do in the movies.
Put yourself in the shoes of those frightened, traumatized people holed up in their houses, determined to hang on because what's left of their houses is all they have left in the world. What would you do if one of these big burly Blackwater guys, with sunglasses and a sub-machine gun, showed up on your doorstep and instructed you to evacuate? As nearly as I can tell, New Orleans is awash in rumor. Suppose you had heard that they weren't really rescuing black people, but rather were rounding them up and putting them in concentration camps, something I wish were further from the truth [link via Xeni at boingboing]. What happens if the man from Blackwater reacts badly to your response?
And how much is Blackwater being paid to prance around with guns while firefighters who came for free are used as props for political photo ops?
A FURTHER THOUGHT: In August of 1955, Hurricane Connie passed through the Delaware Valley, followed shortly by the remnants of Hurricane Diane. This resulted in the Great Flood of 1955. As the late science fiction literary agent Virginia Kidd (at the time of the flood, Mrs. James Blish) told the story, the flood waters rose up to the window sills of the main floor of the house (to a depth of about 4 ft on one side of the house, and much deeper on the other side, as Arrowhead has a daylight basement). The waters stayed for two weeks. Meanwhile, Virginia and her family stayed at Judy Merrill's house, on much higher ground, 3 doors down from the Milford stoplight (for those who've been there). As I recall, Virginia said they spent the whole time playing cards, waiting for the waters to recede. Much of the contents of the house had to be discarded because the flooded houses all had septic systems and the septic systems had been destroyed. But the Blish family still had their house.
But not for long. The US government took most of the houses in the flood zone by eminent domain and tore many of them down. There was a plan for a vast flood management program involving making the whole area a lake. The plan was never enacted. When I worked for Virginia in the late 1980s, we were still sweeping the Delaware River mud out of the floor boards.
Virginia was allowed to rent the family house back from the government for the rest of her life, though if the Feds had ever decided to act on their plan, she would have been evicted. And the house it is where she founded and ran the Virginia Kidd Literary Agency. And when she died a few years ago, the agency was allowed to continue operating in the house, and there they are still.
Why is Blackwater in New Orleans to do work that many others have volunteered to do for free? Two words: Eminent Domain. Think about it.
What is Eminent Domain?
Eminent Domain is how the government takes your property for a public purpose, whether you chose to sell it to them or not, at a price they specify. In Kelo vs. New London, the supreme court vastly expanded the powers of government to take property in situations where it was arguably for a private, not a public, purpose. The American Bar Association outlines it thusly:
The exercise of eminent domain has a central role in urban redevelopment, smart growth, water quality improvements, wild land preservation and restoration, and a host of environmental and energy infrastructure projects.
The Fifth Amendment enjoins: "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." This Quick Teleconference will examine the Supreme Court's recently decided 5th Amendment cases Kelo v. New London, No. 04-108 (June 23, 2005) and Lingle v. Chevron, 125 S. Ct. 2074 (May 23, 2005). In Kelo, the Court by a 5-4 majority upheld the City of New London, Connecticut's condemnation of 15 homes in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood for the sole purpose of furthering economic redevelopment around a planned pharmaceutical research facility. The QT will discuss the extent to which the decision allows governmental officials to condemn private property for the purpose of increasing tax revenues and promoting development.
In Lingle, the Court held in another 5-4 opinion that the 5th Amendment does not engender inquiry into whether the regulation "substantially advances" legitimate state interests, as it would with an issue under the Due Process Clause. Instead, how the amendment applies is a function of the extent and duration of the governmental action.
Translation: in situations like Katrina, Kelo vastly expands the opportunities for corporate looting.
ONE FINAL QUESTION: Under exactly whose authority is Blackwater exerting police powers?
See, for example, this passage from a NOLA account on BoingBoing:
We got yelled at some by police and official-types who wanted us out of areas where they were operating. Herding media isn't really their job, but they weren't rude about it (just brusque). The Blackwater employees, on the other hand, were phenomenally unpleasant. Jake has a lot more to add soon, I'm sure, but there's a serious question as to the authority of these mercenaries.
I imagine that FEMA might enjoy an arrangement with them rather like Paul Bremmer had Bagdad. Except that's impossible because of the extremely peculiar legal circumstances under which the Provisional Authority functioned. New Orleans is under Federal, State, and Local law. There is a state of emergency, yes, but a subcontracted State of Martial Law is difficult to exaplin.
UPDATE 12/11: I just went looking to see why this post on Blackwater from three months ago was getting so much traffic. It seems there has been an uptick on news coverage of Blackwater lately. One item that caught my eye was a November 29th piece from the Village Voice, Relief at the Point of a Gun:
Among other things, Blackwater's men with big guns can be found guarding the Jewish Community Center on lovely St. Charles Avenue in Uptown New Orleans, a FEMA recovery center in one of the most recovered neighborhoods in the city, where the gym is open for business and the Salvation Army is giving out hot meals. It is not an area where anyone normally shoots to kill.
"You're not taking a picture of me, are you?" asks a middle-aged man with a military tattoo, a Blackwater hat, and two pistols, who is immediately joined by an even beefier and younger colleague. When asked who they're working for, the older man says, "The federal government. We're providing security."
So, now that it's common knowledge that Blackwater has contracts with FEMA, what I want to know is why wouldn't people who took exception to what I'd written back in September admit the existence of the contract. Come on, guys. That wasn't fair, now was it?
If you're going to show up to tell the liberal chick in Pleasantville that she Just Doesn't Know, you've got to be straight with me. Those are the rules of engagement here.