This week, President Bush will visit New Orleans to mark the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, as will Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton, and Republican candidates Mike Huckabee and Duncan Hunter. The White House will probably release a fact sheet detailing how many billions of dollars the government has spent on Gulf Coast recovery. The Democrats, no doubt, will call for more money and action. Here’s hoping at least one political visitor will be brave enough to say the truth: that while many New Orleans residents are courageously taking the initiative to rebuild their homes, they cannot build an effective police and prosecutorial force on their own.
To understand how New Orleans is doing two years later, consider a few recent stories. This past weekend, seven family members and friends were enjoying a quiet evening outside their home in a tranquil neighborhood on the city’s east side, which was badly flooded by Katrina. Then, according to New Orleans police, gunmen forced them into their house, robbed them, and shot them all, killing two. It was the neighborhood’s second such crime in two weeks. Previously, gunmen had murdered a couple, Anjelique Vu and Luong Nguyen, leaving their infant and toddler unharmed.
“The slayings . . . were the latest in a series of armed home invasions and robberies in eastern New Orleans,” wrote the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “Several crews of gunmen . . . have robbed and shot workers . . . and homeowners in the area, where many residents are rebuilding their flood-damaged homes.” Also last week, gunmen lined up six laborers and shot three, killing El Salvadoran Julio Benitez-Cruz. (New Orleans has experienced a post-Katrina influx of Hispanic laborers, both legal and illegal, who are tempting targets for criminals because they carry so much cash from contracting jobs.)
In fact, since Katrina, New Orleans’s murder rate has been higher than that of any first-world city. Depending on fluctuating estimates of the city’s returning population, it’s perhaps 40 percent higher than before Katrina and twice as high as the rate in other dangerous cities like Detroit, Newark, and Washington. Families trying to make a home in this environment live in fear, even while many have taken to rebuilding their homes with their bare hands.
As Reverend Nguyen The Vien, pastor of one of eastern New Orleans’s churches, told me earlier this year, “We’re here and we’re rebuilding”—with or without federal assistance. Indeed, Nguyen and his parishioners seemed to treat the subject of government help almost as an afterthought: it may help pay the bills if it ever arrives, but it’s not expected. After Katrina, neighbors fixed up Nguyen’s church under his direction so that they would have a “home base” for eating, sleeping, and showering. Then they set to work rebuilding houses, one by one. Residents of many other neighborhoods—white, black, and Asian—have done the same. As New Orleanians have found out the hard way, the work is backbreaking, but not impossible.
What individual New Orleanians can’t do by themselves is fix the city’s long-broken attitude toward criminal justice. Over and over again during my February trip to New Orleans, I heard how demoralized residents feel when they buy and install new appliances, pipes, and furniture for their flooded-out houses, leave for a day or two, often to temporary homes—and return to find their hard-earned new handiwork ripped out and stolen.
For generations now—and this is the city’s deepest problem—New Orleans has hobbled along without a real law-and-order presence. Criminals graduate from petty crimes to burglary to drug-dealing to carrying illegal weapons to gang robberies to murder, and face few consequences at any stage. The police, and especially the prosecutors, are ineffectual. Since Katrina, things have gotten much worse, in part because criminals, finding life difficult in cities that enforce the law, have returned to the Big Easy in numbers disproportionate to those of law-abiding citizens. Mayor Ray Nagin doesn’t try to fix things, perhaps because, as he often says, he believes crime is a social problem, rooted in a lack of opportunity for poor youth.
The Bush administration has deployed extra federal law-enforcement agents to try to get the worst criminals off the street. The state of Louisiana, meanwhile, has sent the National Guard to patrol half-empty neighborhoods. But just as the U.S. military can only do so much in Iraq when Baghdad’s local government is ineffective, the federal government can’t do much in New Orleans until the city’s local government changes its attitude and behavior. Residents have no reason to think that criminal behavior has predictable negative consequences, because Nagin and New Orleans district attorney Eddie Jordan have failed to make clear that people who commit crimes in New Orleans will be prosecuted.
But President Bush can use federal dollars to try to convince them to do it. In his speech in New Orleans on Wednesday, Bush should announce that he’s ready to ask Congress for $500 million over two years to overhaul New Orleans’s police and prosecutorial forces. But he also should say that the money is contingent on a pledge from Nagin and Jordan that their city’s Number One priority will be law enforcement. Bush should also tie the federal money to measurable results: rational arrests (from quality-of-life crimes all the way up to homicide), effective prosecutions, and, ultimately, fewer crimes.
It’s an enduring mystery why Bush hasn’t used the Katrina disaster to show the world that America can rebuild a major city using a bedrock conservative principle: law and order first. Democrats are welcome to propose the same idea, of course. Obama, Edwards, and Clinton have all mentioned New Orleans’s crime problem in their recent speeches. But they often tie it to a lack of staff and equipment in the city after Katrina—as if it’s a question of rebuilding something that was lost, instead of building from scratch the most essential component of any city’s success. Until politicians understand that basic difference, spending more money—or bragging about past billions spent—while tolerating intolerable conditions in a first-world city is nothing short of disgraceful.