Sunday, September 04, 2005

With this much blood in the water, what else would you expect to start circling?

For days, and days, and days, the expendable poor of New Orleans have been begging for someone, anyone, to come.

Be careful what you wish for. It’s not just, finally, Bush and some troops who are ambling into town.

Here come the mercenaries.

I’m sorry, that’s crude of me: firms like Blackwater, the Steele Foundation and Beau Dietl & Associates prefer ‘security consultants’, or even, if you can get the media to play along, the coy ‘civilian contractors’. You know what we’re talking about though: soldiers-for-hire. There are 25,000 of them in Iraq – and judging that it’s them, not army soldiers, who guard the very generals who order that army around, they’re obviously the more efficient killers. And now they’re heading for New Orleans.

It’s a commonplace that violence is at the core of what the state does. The state is, after all, ‘special bodies of armed men’ (and women). But if it withdraws, it loses its monopoly on violence. That’s what’s happened in New Orleans. The social functions of violence have been taken over by people on the ground – the Evil Looters. Some ‘knuckleheads’ are undoubtedly using their new forceful authority to perform despicable acts – they are, recall, replacing the usual ‘official’ (and ongoing) purveyors of violence, and they’ve learnt by repeated example. In fact, though, despite circumstances of unimaginable dehumanisation, even some mainstream commentators note that club law has been conspicuous by its relative absence. And those exercising their new power to commit violence against property are, all too often, keeping not only themselves but their neighbours alive. They’ve shouldered not only the state’s right to violence, but its supposed duty to provide welfare (which to be fair it had long made clear it had no interest in). They are the heroes of New Orleans, though they will never be honoured.

But this kind of brute contracting-out is unacceptable: it has to give way to the more planned kind. If the power over life and death is to be handed over, it can’t be given to the populace. Corporations, however, are another matter. And hence, here come the mercenaries.

The ruins are filling up with gunmen loyal to the corporate bottom line.

Blackwater USA, The Steele Foundation, Kroll Inc, AKE Group, Beau Dietl and doubtless others are all in or sniffing the city, and the numbers, with the demand, are increasing. And unlike the citizens’ desire for food, this is effective demand, backed by cash, and the service will be provided.

The ramifications for ‘public order’ are unthinkable. We already know the population is dispensable, that the police and troops were ordered to stop search-and-rescue and told to shoot-to-kill ‘looters’. We’ve heard the weirdly prurient way the Louisiana Governor described soldiers as ‘locked and loaded’, 'more than willing’ to attack. Now the city will be subject to a public-private partnership in brute force.

It was the media who started it. Terrified for the safety of their correspondents among angry poor, NBC, CNN, CBS, ABC and others paid for ‘security services’ to escort them. In point of fact, rather than attacking the media, the 'bad people' of New Orleans, as Michael Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency has vociferously complained, have instead had the disgraceful impertinence to complain to the journalists about being left to die, have sought out cameras and begged for help down the lenses. You could argue that separating yourself from your story with armed men might not be the best journalism, but whatever – NBC et al wanted some muscle on their side.

But what were at first a few jobs for the mercs have now become an opportunity, because other businesses – Hilton is mentioned, and Marriott, and there are doubtless many more – are scared: their property is under threat.

To be sure, the 'security' purveyors might make a few half-hearted noises about helping the desperate, whatever, but when, for example, Blackwater USA says it has ‘joined the ongoing relief efforts … to help assist in evacuating citizens’, what does it mean? Well, it lists the services that are ‘available’ – which include, ominously, particularly given its veterans' histories, ‘crowd control’ – then provides a number to ring if you have ‘a security or evacuation request’. A request, one imagines, backed by dollars.

The Steele Foundation is a bit more explicit about how it can ‘assist clients’: it can provide security and safety ‘at designated client locations’; it can ‘protect client personnel and … secure assets’. It provides a painfully accurate analysis of what’s gone wrong, and a promise about what Steele’s ‘Global Rapid Response’ can do about it.

At a time when federal recovery agencies are staged outside of New Orleans and unable to assist the population due to security risks; at a time when the private security and public law enforcement agencies have been decimated; when companies have been unable to secure government resources; when fuel sources have been depleted and emergency generators are failing; when the downtown area has been cut off from food supplies; when people are trapped in buildings and unable to evacuate on their own, Global Rapid Response(TM) has been able to proactively support clients during the crisis.

So while most of New Orleans has been left to die of starvation, thirst, heat, disease and violence, a few people have some support. Despite the lack of doctors for the dying, there's medicine for business, and while the state won’t even let the Red Cross in to help the dying, because it will ‘keep people from evacuating', the soldiers of fortune can come and go, to minister to their clients.

You know what we're seeing? Another mercenary boss, Bill Vorlicek, director of Kroll’s emergency management group, knows, and tells us without hesitation or dissembling, but with pride.

‘Corporate America taking care of its own.’

Corporate America already had a go at the ‘before’ of a hurricane (though they’re now quite coy about it). Now they’re having a go at the ‘after’, and this time, what they’re about to inflict isn’t only the murderous violence of neglect, of poverty, of unaccountability: this time it’s also the violence of guns.

In the unsentimental world of business there’s no cataclysm that’s not also an opportunity: after all, Halliburton’s dabbing away its tears over Katrina with some of the dollars from its new reconstruction contract. Now in a breathtaking feedback loop, the social chaos caused by governmental neglect has created a truly exciting opportunity for the providers of privatised violence. Their presence, analysis and recent history suggest, is likely to increase the chaos, so increasing the need for their presence. They can’t lose.

Only these people can lose, while Corporate America takes care of its own.