Should people be forced to evacuate the hurricane devastated areas?

There is one particular issue that I have mixed feelings about and that is the way that people who still live in New Orleans after the hurricane has passed and the process of recovery is beginning are being compelled to give up their weapons and leave their homes.

The force first comes indirectly in the form of preventing food and water from reaching them to threats to put them in handcuffs and removing them, although it is not clear if that threat has actually been carried out.

According to the New York Times officers will search all the houses in both dry and flooded neighborhoods, and no one will be allowed to stay.

Many of the residents still in the city said they did not understand why the city remained intent on forcing them out.

“I know the risks,” said Renee de Pontchieux, as she sat on a stool outside Kajun’s Pub in the working-class Bywater neighborhood east of downtown. “We used to think we lived in America – now we’re not so sure. Why should we allow this government to chase us out and allow people from outside to rebuild our homes? We want to rebuild our homes.”

They are also taking away people’s weapons, even if the owners have legal rights to them.

Waters were receding across this flood-beaten city today as police officers
began confiscating weapons, including legally registered firearms, from civilians in preparation for a mass forced evacuation of the residents still living here.

No civilians in New Orleans will be allowed to carry pistols, shotguns or other firearms, said P. Edwin Compass III, the superintendent of police. “Only law enforcement are allowed to have weapons,” he said.

But these evacuation and disarming programs don’t seem to apply to certain classes of people.

But that order apparently does not apply to hundreds of security guards hired by businesses and some wealthy individuals to protect property. The guards, employees of private security companies like Blackwater, openly carry M-16’s and other assault rifles. Mr. Compass said that he was aware of the private guards, but that the police had no plans to make them give up their weapons.

On the one hand, I can understand that with armed criminal gangs reportedly wandering around (although I haven’t seen much evidence, such as reports of arrests of gang members, that this is a major problem), the police and other security forces patrolling the streets might be nervous about them stealing the residents’ weapons, not to mention the risk that with people’s nerves on edge, residents might shoot at the police thinking that they were criminals or because they feel they have the right to protect their homes from any intruder, police or otherwise.

But this does raise the question of what happened to the second amendment giving people the right to bear arms, and why gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association have not loudly protested this seeming violation of it. Perhaps there is some ruling by the Supreme Court that says that under a state of emergency the authorities have the right to disarm people. But if legal residents are disarmed while they are in an area where the civil government has broken down, this does make them more vulnerable to criminals.

The other troubling question is whether people like Ms. de Pontchieux should be allowed to take the risk of staying on in their homes if they are in a position to make that decision. After all, we allow people to do all kinds of things that risk their safety. They can go mountain climbing, sail solo in deep ocean waters, hang gliding, smoke, etc. and when they get into trouble, we do not begrudge the rescue efforts. So why shouldn’t the people of New Orleans who want to remain be allowed to stay in their homes?

I can understand the humanitarian impulse behind wanting them to leave. With no electricity, running water, or proper sanitation, the risks to them of contracting illnesses from all the filth and debris and pollution may be high. But shouldn’t that be their choice, as long as their continued presence does not cause a health hazard or prevent cleanup efforts?

The authorities also say that they cannot cope with having to provide the people who stay with food and security for their safety, but it is not clear to me that the people staying in their homes and businesses asked for these things. If they haven’t, then why is it necessary to ask them to leave?

Perhaps the one thing that troubles me most was the original decision by the Mayor of New Orleans to deny remaining residents food and water as a means of coercing them to leave. It cannot be that hard, especially in the US with all its resources, to provide food and water to the estimated 10,000 people still remaining. At most it is a minor expense and inconvenience to the authorities. To me, the right to food and water is so basic that it should never be used as a weapon and we should never deny it to anyone. So I was heartened when Army Lt. General Honore, newly appointed head of the military’s Joint Task Force Katrina, immediately ordered the soldiers to not point their weapons at people and countermanded the Mayor’s order and gave water and food to the people who remained because he wanted to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserved.

Once again, we are confronted with the thorny question of the right of individuals to be left alone coming into conflict with the needs of the state. There may be no easy answers to such questions but I am concerned that there does not seem to be a serious discussion of them.


This week The Daily Show is doing a four part series on evolution. You can see part 1, part 2 , part 3-I, part 3-II and part 4.

POST SCRIPT 2: Private and public relief efforts

Cartoonist and essayist Ted Rall in his article Charities are for suckers puts into words something that has been bothering me, and that is the question of whether private charities are letting the government off the hook for disaster relief.

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