The hurricane porn enjoying Katrina has, in part, circled around dead bodies. Bloated corpses floating in flood water. Blanketed bodies in wheelchairs. Rows of the dead found in a hospital chapel and a nursing home. Bodies gnawed on by animals. A town turned into a morgue blocked from view, from the gaze of the press. A preoccupation with counting the dead, a preoccupation that seeks to reassure itself of its sovereign authority by reducing accountability to quantification, a matter of counting.
Tripping over these bodies, even rightwing pundits of cable news find themselves off-message, criticizing any and all governmental authorities including the federal. With Katrina the object of so many obscenities, why does the presence of the dead body on the street become a particular locus of anxiety?
Perhaps one answer lies in the war on terror. As he articulated the invasion of Iraq with the attacks of 9/11, Bush presented current militarism as a battle between the civilized and the barbarian. The whole free world confronted the terrorist other as an evil assault on civilization itself. Insofar as the United States and Britain have long relied on torture, even as they may have officially denied it, the presence torture in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib has been easily absorbed into the dominant ideology: torture doesn't indicate barbarism, or at least not the legal modes of interrogation authorized by US law.
But, letting your dead rot in the streets? That, if nothing else, is a sign of barbarism. Thucydides refers to the unburied dead as indications of the collapse of Athenian culture during the plague. A traditional reading of Antigone (one that emphasizes the rebirth of Athenian democracy in reason) sees her opposition to Creon as an opposition to baseless tyranny, to a tyranny so lacking in reason, so uncivilized, so disrespectful and hence unworthy of respect as to order that the dead remain unburied.
And now, New Orleans. A sign of barbarism. A sign of a culture, civilization, democracy, and reason that is indefensible, that is itself disrespectful and unworthy of respect.
And when the dead are buried, will we likewise try to bury our awareness of our barbarism? And, if so, in what guise will these dead return?