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Civic mindedness US style!

By Brett Bowden - posted Thursday, 8 September 2005

All is not well in the land of the free and the home of the brave. In fact, social cohesion has not been too rosy in the United States for a long time. The most recent demonstration of this comes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that hit the Gulf Coast last week. The ensuing events tell us a lot about America and Americans. Sadly, not a lot of it is positive. President George W. Bush has proclaimed that it will bring out the best in Americans. If what we have seen is the best then I fear the worst.

Setting aside the inadequate emergency response, more than anything else the onlooking world has been struck by the rapid breakdown of civil order. As always generalisations are dangerous, but there appears to be a near absence of any sense of civic-mindedness. No inkling of any notion of citizenship.

Where else in the world would you see the scale of looting, profiteering, murder, and rape of the already beleaguered victims of nature. And where else in the world would opportunistic snipers take pot-shots at police, fire-fighters and fellows citizens as they go about saving lives and easing suffering. There is something to be said here about the gun culture of the nation and the near universal accessibility to arms. But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all this is the issuing of “shoot to kill” orders against desperate people who are scavenging for the necessities of life.


Regrettably, the collapse of civic order is nothing terribly new. It is a phenomenon that has periodically torn asunder cities across America throughout its history. In their time cities such as Detroit, Watts, Mississippi, St Louis, Chicago, New York, and most recently, Los Angeles have all seem more than their share of riots and civil unrest. Whatever the injustices that sparked such unrest - and there have been many injustices - the dramatic collapse of social order is a frightening development.

While the United States is the richest country in the world it is also one of the most polarised. In the wake of events in New Orleans and Biloxi, this week the The Boston Globe called for a “War on Poverty”. In a country that is armed to the back teeth the language of war is this last thing the US needs.

Besides the Civil War successive administrations have carried out more domestic wars than is healthy for any country. The “War on Drugs” and the “War on Crime”, to name just two, have been abject failures. They have resulted in more and more of its black population being incarcerated and greater disenfranchisement and deeper social divisions. The very things the Civil War sought to overcome.

The call to war also says something about the collective psychology of the nation and its attitude to tackling such problems. Yes, there is a need to address the drug problem and the related crime problem. All of which is related to the poverty problem. But another war is not the answer. What is needed is a comprehensive and sustainable policy that is inclusive, not divisive.

Should social breakdown and civic disorder become a more common occurrence in the US, I suspect the greatest threat to America and the much-cherished “American way of life” will not come from without, but within. The establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and the PATRIOT ACT will do absolutely nothing to diminish polarisation, internal inequalities and deep-seated divisions.

Unfortunately, there is a message in here for al-Qaida as well. The message is do nothing. If al-Qaida’s aim is to bring about the downfall of the US, then all they might have to do is wait. Somewhat ironically, September 11 served to bring the nation together and bring out the best in America and Americans, albeit momentarily. Hurricane Katrina, on the other hand, has again exposed the raw nerve that lies just below the surface of the American heartland.

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About the Author

Brett Bowden is a Professor of History and Politics at Western Sydney University.

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