“Homeland” Insecurities?

Katrina and the Politics of “Security” in
Metropolitan America
Stephen Graham
Durham University
...
64

space and culture / february 2006

The risks of “cyberterrorism,” bioterrorism, chemical terrorism, and nuclear “dirty...
“Homeland” Insecurities?

65

managers had been replaced by Bush’s friends and allies, who had no relevant skills and
expe...
66

space and culture / february 2006

that growing fossil fuel consumption is a prime contributor to global warming, seal...
“Homeland” Insecurities?

67

Elliston, B. (2004b, September 28). A disaster waiting to happen. Best of New Orleans. Retri...
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Graham, Stephen. "“Homeland” insecurities? Katrina and the politics of “security” in metropolitan America." space and culture 9.1 (2006): 63-67.Space and culture kattrina

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This intervention explores the paradox that although the Bush administration has repeatedly stressed the purported insecurity of U.S. urbanites to “terroristic” threats since 9/11, it has simul- taneously undermined the preparedness and resilience of U.S. cities in the face of catastrophic weather and seismic events. Arguing that Katrina needs to be seen as an event that unerringly exposes the politics of urban security in post-9/11 U.S. cities, the piece explores the relationships between neoconservative, antiurban ideology; the “homeland security” drive; and climate change, catastrophic weather events, and oil geopolitics.

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Graham, Stephen. "“Homeland” insecurities? Katrina and the politics of “security” in metropolitan America." space and culture 9.1 (2006): 63-67.Space and culture kattrina

  1. 1. “Homeland” Insecurities? Katrina and the Politics of “Security” in Metropolitan America Stephen Graham Durham University This intervention explores the paradox that although the Bush administration has repeatedly stressed the purported insecurity of U.S. urbanites to “terroristic” threats since 9/11, it has simultaneously undermined the preparedness and resilience of U.S. cities in the face of catastrophic weather and seismic events. Arguing that Katrina needs to be seen as an event that unerringly exposes the politics of urban security in post-9/11 U.S. cities, the piece explores the relationships between neoconservative, antiurban ideology; the “homeland security” drive; and climate change, catastrophic weather events, and oil geopolitics. Keywords: New Orleans; Hurricane Katrina; security; politics The Katrina disaster unerringly revealed some of the stark politics that surround “security” in the post-9/11 United States. In particular, the disaster underlined a dark irony. On one hand, a large proportion of the Bush administration’s rhetoric since 9/11 has repeatedly emphasized the fragile exposure of U.S. urbanites to purported “terrorist” risks. Here, everyday urban sites and technics have been discursively constructed as means through which an often invisible and threatening Other can leap at any moment to damage and destroy everyday American urban life. Such discourses have been used to legitimize both the Bush administration’s overseas military invasions and the massive spending hikes to further inflate the burgeoning military-security-corrections complex. On the other hand, however, U.S. cities’ preparedness for much more devastating and likely impacts of catastrophic “natural” events such as Katrina have actually been undermined. This is because of fiscal cuts and the construction of the large “homeland security” and antiterror drive, which has tended to ignore or downplay such risks. space and culture vol. 9 no. 1, february 2006  63-000 63-67 DOI: 10.1177/1206331205283671 ©2006 Sage Publications 63
  2. 2. 64 space and culture / february 2006 The risks of “cyberterrorism,” bioterrorism, chemical terrorism, and nuclear “dirty bombs” have been a particularly recurrent feature of Bush’s “war on terror” discourse. On the back of such rhetoric, multibillion-dollar investments have been made to further inflate an emerging complex of correctional-security-military industries (which have very close personal and financial links to key members of the Bush inner core). Closely linked to the major defense contractors and universities, they have started to develop and install a whole range of high-tech antiterrorist sensors and systems in and around strategic U.S. metropolitan areas. At the same time, these corporations have benefited from the defense, research, and reconstruction budgets associated with the U.S. military’s invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Ironically, these budgets and programs—ostensibly at least—are all about “urban security.” But here, they obsess only over the lucrative business of “security,” which involves the extension and construction of new antiterrorist surveillance and “urban combat” systems (Graham, 2004). The prosaic business of securing increasingly perilous U.S. cities from a whole range of other, less profitable risks is downplayed. Rather, the aggressive, militarized paradigm spreads to encompass such risks and events. However, it brings “combat operations” rather than mitigation and authoritarian heavyhandedness of the sort seen in Iraq rather than compassionate humanitarianism toward fellow citizens. In disturbing echoes of Baghdad and Fallujah, U.S. Army commanders, in response to Katrina, talked openly in the Army Times about the need to launch “urban combat” operations to “take back” the city from “insurgents” who had bred anarchy and violence (Chenelly, 2005). Much of the funding for Bush’s homeland security drive has been achieved through the cuts in broad-scale urban, social, and welfare funding that have been a prime feature of Bush’s fiscal reengineering of the U.S. state along neoconservative lines. Elsewhere, however, resources have also been stripped from essential infrastructure maintenance and research budgets for other hazards. Given the age and decrepit nature of much of the infrastructural fabric of metropolitan America, a function of the longstanding neglect of public works in U.S. politics, such cuts are extremely problematic. They threaten to bring with them a whole slew of increased risks in the face of volatile climatic change, rising temperatures, and sea-level rises. But because such risks seem far from the ubiquitous discourses of the “war on terror,” they have increasingly been ignored—until Katrina, that is. Such a policy shift may have directly contributed to the scale and devastation of Katrina. In early 2004, the federal government withdrew moneys from levee maintenance around New Orleans to pay for homeland security programs and the Iraq war budget. With levees sinking, the local U.S. Army Corps of Engineers actually had to go around to local funders begging for small donations to contribute toward maintaining their level against the wider, sinking city. As the 2006 budgets were drawn up, a $35 million program of levee maintenance was identified. But scheduled funding for the year was cut by the federal government from $5.7 million to $2.9 million, which barely covered the salaries of existing engineers. Just as damaging, the costs of the Iraq war led to the abandonment of an important research project tracing the dynamics of hurricane risk, levee maintenance, and urban sinking in the New Orleans area (Elliston, 2004b). More worrying still is the saga of the key U.S. government organization tasked with responding to events such as Katrina: the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A world-class model of disaster mitigation before 2001, FEMA was a shadow of its former self as Katrina hit because of cuts and cronyism (Elliston, 2004b). Expert
  3. 3. “Homeland” Insecurities? 65 managers had been replaced by Bush’s friends and allies, who had no relevant skills and experience whatsoever. Comprehensive national disaster mitigation plans had been abandoned. Many demoralized experts had left. An increasingly privatized contract culture had replaced core, in-house competences, with localities increasingly forced to compete for central disaster mitigation money. More problematic still, FEMA had been bundled into the U.S. Department of Homeland Security behemoth, which concentrated its resources and discussions overwhelmingly toward terrorist risk. The federal government increasingly stressed that hazard mitigation and disaster response should be dealt with at the state level. But the states, suffering huge deficits because of reduced central support, have been unable to replicate FEMA’s services (see Elliston, 2004b). Whether a full levee maintenance and research program and a world-class FEMA would have ameliorated Katrina’s devastating impact we will never know. But the broader denial of nonterrorist risks, combined with the wider antiurbanism and anti–public service ethos of the Bush administration, must surely be contributing to a growing vulnerability of U.S. cities to catastrophic weather, seismic, and fire events. The September 2004 words of hazards expert William Waugh, a professor at Georgia State University, now seem eerily prescient: “If you talk to FEMA people and emergency management people around the country,” he remarked, “people have almost been hoping for a major natural disaster like a hurricane, just to remind the Department of Homeland Security and the Bush administration that there are other big things—even bigger things—than al Qaeda” (quoted in Elliston, 2004a). Oil and Water Katrina also did much to underline the contradictions that run through the Bush administration neoconservative energy and geopolitical strategy after 9/11. Most glaring here is the darkly ironic vicious circle that Katrina may well in due course be shown to exemplify. This vicious circle goes something like this: First, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the Bush administration’s pursuit of unfettered access to, and control over, the world’s diminishing oil supplies has been the fundamental geopolitical principle driving its “war on terror” and the associated, and extremely bloody, invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan (Retort, 2005). For the Bush administration, “energy security” means controlling these diminishing resources so that America’s disproportionate consumption of global oil supplies—25% of all supplies for 5% of the world’s population—can be continued. The imperative here is to indefinitely support the exurban lifestyles of Bush’s Republican heartlands, with their large homes, very high levels of consumption, sprawling cityscapes, highway networks, and gas-guzzling SUVs. Such a strategy requires that cheap gas and oil supplies somehow be maintained, even as global supplies diminish, demand burgeons further, and the geopolitics of oil becomes more volatile and contested. Hence, either directly or indirectly, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have allowed U.S. oil companies—and others keen to trade extracted oil in dollars on the U.S. resource markets—to try to increase their control of the world’s key remaining reserves in and around the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf, at the expense of Chinese, Russian, and French interests (see Retort, 2005). The second turn of the circle is that this strategy has been pursued while systematically denying the overwhelming volume of serious scientific evidence suggesting
  4. 4. 66 space and culture / february 2006 that growing fossil fuel consumption is a prime contributor to global warming, sealevel rises, the degradation of biodiversity, and intensifying climate chaos (Bush & Rauber, 2004). As well as pulling the United States out of the Kyoto accord, Bush has supported a tiny number of scientists, often linked closely with the oil transnationals with which Bush himself is closely allied. Such scientists have been well rewarded to pledge their continued skepticism about the scientific evidence for global warming in the face of overwhelming hostility from the vast majority of the world’s leading climatologists and oceanographers. The vicious circle closes in rising sea levels and the increasing intensity of catastrophic storm events such as Katrina, not only in the developing world but in and on the vulnerable and urbanized shores of the United States and other advanced industrial regions. Although it is not without its detractors, or competing theories, a growing body of highly respected scientific work suggests that global warming is substantially increasing the intensity of tropical storms and hurricanes. Kerry Emanuel (2005), a climatologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, has found that major storms in both the Atlantic and Pacific have increased in both duration and intensity by around 50% since the 1970s. During this time, mean global temperatures have risen by 0.5°C. The theory here is that the warming of subsurface ocean water allows hurricanes to continue heating up when, previously, cooler subsurface water would have acted as a “brake,” moderating hurricane intensity. Here, we confront the inseparable connection between global climate change, apparently small and incremental acts of consumption and expectation, and the very structure and shape of contemporary urban civilizations. Perhaps the most powerful microcosm of this vicious circle in action comes from some stories about survivors of Katrina. Isolated, powerless, and abandoned in the flooding streets of New Orleans, in unbearable heat, many kept themselves cool by sitting in air-conditioned cars with engines on—until, of course, their gas ran out. Amid a storm probably made more intense by global warming, cars thus provide islands of cool while throwing out more heat and more greenhouse gases. As with the lines of abandoned SUVs at the commuter rail stations in New England and New Jersey on the evening of 9/11, it doesn’t take long for crises in metropolitan America, and the rest of the urbanized world, to connect, through the automobilized landscapes of sprawl, to the global geopolitics of oil. This happens as the “peak” of world oil supplies is reached and as intensifying global warming is paralleled by a transnational struggle to exploit and control remaining resources—apparently at almost any cost. References Bush, C., & Rauber, P. (2004). Strategic ignorance: Why the Bush administration is recklessly destroying a century of environmental progress. Berkeley: University of California Press. Chenelly, J. (2005, September 2). Troops begin combat operations in New Orleans. Army Times. Retrieved October 10, 2005, from http://www.armytimes.com/story.php?f=1-2929251077495.php Elliston, B. (2004a, September 22). Disaster in the making. Independent Weekly. Retrieved October 10, 2005, from http://www.indyweek.com/durham/2004-09-22/cover.html
  5. 5. “Homeland” Insecurities? 67 Elliston, B. (2004b, September 28). A disaster waiting to happen. Best of New Orleans. Retrieved October 11, 2005, from http://www.bestofneworleans.com/dispatch/2004-09-28/cover_story. html Emanuel, K. (2005). Divine wind: The history and science of hurricanes. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Graham, S. (2004). Cities, war, and terrorism: Towards an urban geopolitics. Oxford, UK: Blackwell. Retort. (2005). Afflicted powers: Capital and spectacle in a new age of war. London: Verso. Stephen Graham is a professor of human geography at Durham University in the United Kingdom. He has a background in urbanism, planning, and the sociology of technology. His research addresses the intersections of urban places, mobilities, technology, war, surveillance, and geopolitics. His books include Telecommunications and the City: Electronic Spaces, Urban Places (with Simon Marvin, Routledge, 1996); Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition (with Simon Marvin, Routledge, 2001); and The Cybercities Reader (Routledge, 2004). His latest book is Cities, War, and Terrorism: Towards an Urban Geopolitics (Blackwell, 2004).

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