Sunday, September 04, 2005



The media here in Britain seem to be a bit geographically challenged when it comes to assessing the relief efforts on the Gulf of Mexico. They seem to have, consciously or not, transposed the damage from a map of the USA to a map of Britain without taking note of those funny "scale" markings in the corner, and they imagine that what has happened is something like Bristol being destroyed by bad weather, and Britain having to respond, when the actual destruction is more like Scotland or Denmark being taken out by bad weather, in terms of area and population. The nearest big cities to New Orleans are Dallas and Atlanta, each about 500 miles away - that's further than London to Glasgow. How would you go about evacuating Scotland with 12 or 24 hours notice? How whould you supply it, with sea and air links taken out first of all, and roads impaired for the last hundred miles or so?

And the second implication of this scale, of course, is the perspective on the terrorism issue. When I wrote, back in 2003, half-heartedly defending the Iraq war, I felt the threat of terrorism could, in principle, be a sufficient reason for launching a fairly large war. Over time, the impression grew that the effort was out of proportion to the threat. Articles like this one reinforced the idea. July, and the negligible damage that terrorists were able to do to London, made the point even stronger still. It's unlikely that terrorists can repeat the impact of September 2001, but even if they did it every year or two, it would be among the least of our problems. The worst-case scenario, remote as it is, would be a fission bomb in a major city, but that would do much less damage than the USA has taken in the last 10 days. (Although in the longer term it would probably kill more people).

It would have been worth billions to have prevented Katrina (if it were possible), but would it have been worth a trillion? At some point the cost-benefit calculation has to be that it's worth taking the risk.

Of course, we're in now, and I'm discussing a decision long since made. The same calculus that makes me sceptical of the necessity of the Iraq war makes me optimistic as to its outcome: the massively-reported internal terrorism in Iraq is actually pretty minor, and is no great obstacle to the institution of a stable government. As I've said before, sunk costs aside, the job in Iraq needs to be finished. The costs of stopping now are greater than those of leaving Saddam in power in the first place.

Back to Katrina, the victims deserve sympathy, but not condescension. America is not a charity case, but neither does it deserve to be sneered at in the face of a natural catastrophe greater than anything Europe has ever seen in history.
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