I Luvz Me Some ZEITOUN
You treat every problem like a nail if your only tool is a hammer.
In this particular case, the entity wielding the hammer is the government -- federal / state / local -- and the nail is the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The point is “hammered home” in Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun (McSeeny’s Books) by focusing on how first Katrina then the government affected the lives of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun, a Syrian born contractor and his American wife, in the aftermath of the storm.
Of the two, Katrina was the least problematic.
Eggers employs a non-fiction novel style in telling their story, and a gripping one it is. The first part is a standard yet compelling disaster story, with Kathy fleeing to safety inland with their four children while Abdulrahman stays to literally weather the storm and keep an eye on their home, their business, their rental properties, and eventually their neighbors and some neighborhood dogs.
This section reads like a thrilling boys-own-adventure story with Abdulrahman paddling through his submerged community in a canoe, rescuing neighbors, feeding trapped dogs, trying to get help for people with no means of escape (Kathy actually has a worse time in this section of the book, dealing with relatives even though she and the children are safely away from New Orleans).
But Abdulrahman’s apocalyptic adventure soon plunges into a dystopian nightmare. Throughout the book Eggers hints at the governments’ -- federal / state / local -- wholly inadequate preparations for Katrina and their hysterical overreaction to what they could only envision as a complete collapse of civilization to Road Warrior levels.
The governments’ assumptions -- federal / state / local -- was that of course any city with a large African-American population would immediately degenerate into vicious savagery, looting, pillaging, killing, even raping infants.
In truth the worst incidents in New Orleans were caused by a grotesque overreaction based on a belief that the only appropriate government response was to send in heavily armed police and troops as an occupying army instead of rendering service and aid to those who needed it.
One of the governments’ first actions after Katrina passed was to build in less than 72 hours a military prison stockade for looters and “terrorists” while thousands of people were suffering and often dying without water, food, or medical attention.
And note the word “terrorists”. As all quick response organizations should, the Department of Homeland Security had drawn up a list of ways that terrorists could attempt to exploit a natural disaster. However, even as they drew up such a list, they acknowledged the probably of any terrorists actually attempting to do anything was extremely remote. Nonetheless, plans were made on how to respond if such terrorist acts did occur.
The Katrina responders, however, operated under the assumption that such acts actually were occurring and behaved accordingly.
…and this is where Abdulrahman fell into their tender mercies.
Arrested by heavily armed police and military in a rental property he owned, Abdulrahman and three of his friends (one Syrian, two white Americans) were treated as de facto terrorists.
Locked up first in the hastily built military stockade then in a maximum security prison, Abdulrahman was denied legal counsel, medical attention, and the right to contact his wife.
Here’s where the story turns really grim and ugly. While Abdulrahman’s health deteriorated, his wife Kathy grew increasingly frantic trying to locate him, encountering levels of increasingly indifferent bureaucracy worthy of the worst nightmares of Fanz Kafka and Joseph Heller.
In fact, only when someone outside the system broke the rules and passed along information about Abdulrahman to Kathy did any break in the logjam occur.
(And Abdulrahman’s experience was far from the worst: Eggers recounts the experiences of others who were arrested on even more trivial suspicions despite overwhelming evidence they were not engaged in any unlawful activity.)
This is the most damning part of the book: Not the fact the police and military made mistakes but that they approached the situation with the presumption their primary job was to squash lawlessness.
What good is the preservation of law and order if no one is alive to enjoy it? Why protect property already ravaged by flood when people are dying from lack of food and water?
(There were indeed looters and exploiters in the aftermath of Katrina, but a fraction of the effort expended to catch and punish them would have saved hundreds of human lives and who knows how many domestic animals.)
Zeitoun is not a feel good book, it’s a get-good-and-mad book. The systemic problems addressed not only still exist in our society but one may argue they’ve gotten even worse.