Tale of two worlds
The images we’ve often seen:
Poor, mainly black people with a sad, defeated look in their eyes sitting along the side of a road, in an airport terminal or at some kind of emergency shelter hanging on to several bags of their most cherished belongings. Where are they? Their eyes tell us that they barely know themselves. Wherever it is, it’s far from home. Another photo shows us their modest residences back home, now in ruins. Their city, the basis of their existence, is underwater. More photos show us that it will be a long time before they can rebuild their lives. News stories report unimaginable grief, untold misery and great desperation. And they make us realize how even a wealthy and powerful country can become vulnerable. New Orleans is suffering and—through the eyes of the media—the world is suffering with it.
The images we rarely see:
Even poorer people clouded by dust stare with vacant eyes at the lifeless bodies of their family members and the rubble that was once their home or village. These people live on the edge of subsistence in places where water is scarce and the sun a daily enemy. They have no voice at all in international politics; their suffering is seldom documented. People whose lives have been destroyed by military raids, by bombs raining from the sky, against which they couldn’t possibly defend themselves. If there were more photographs, you would see not only death in their eyes, but often a powerless rage and a sometimes a maddening desire for revenge. Afghanistan has suffered and continues to suffer. Iraq suffers every day. And that suffering, affecting so many more people than Hurricane Katrina, goes largely unnoticed by the world.
New Orleans is America. New Orleans counts. The lives of people from New Orleans count. Afghanistan and Iraq are parcels of land that is not controlled by the people who live there; it’s contested territory in the battles of international politics. Lives in Afghanistan and Iraq don’t count for much. In New Orleans there are hundreds of victims, perhaps at the very worst, a thousand or two. In Afghanistan and Iraq there are many, many thousands. But the biggest difference is this: New Orleans was destroyed by nature. The suffering and loss there may have been prevented by building better dikes or providing better assistance, but it is still a natural disaster—a force against which people are sometimes powerless. The destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq was caused entirely by people. By bombs and guns. And people could have prevented that violence. People should have prevented it.
It pains me to see what happened to the poor people of New Orleans. But as I watch the flow of images portraying their devastated lives, in my mind’s eye I also see the imagines never shown. Of people further away, for whom not even a bus was sent to take them to safety, days after being struck by man-made evil. People for whom there are no shelters, care or attention. That difference hurts. It is a gap Ode is fighting to close. Because it is a difference that threatens everyone’s peace and a better future for the world.