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October 5, 2005

Kurosawa's History of Hurricane Katrina

Kevin E. Dayhoff

American Anthropologist Ernest Albert Hooten once said: "History is principally the inaccurate narration of events which ought not to have happened." How will history record Hurricane Katrina?

Perhaps, when we later reflect upon the history of Hurricane Katrina, the more poignant question may be how many times does it take for an untruth to be repeated before it becomes "true?"

The 1950 Japanese classic movie "Rashamon," directed by Akira Kurosawa, tells the story of a crime in 12th-century Japan. The movie is based upon a story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa in which a robber ambushes a merchant and his wife.

The crime is retold from four separate points-of-view: that of the bandit, the wife, the dead man, and a lowly peasant, with each character offering a very different version of the same story. All four characters recount the same story, but each tells a different "truth."

This illustrates that - problematically - each participant's bias, perception, and the ability to recall are woven into the "primary source" material for an historian. The "true history" of the event becomes relative because there are as many truths as there are eyewitnesses.

In early September, when Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., NY) requested a 9/11 style independent commission to investigate the governments' response to Hurricane Katrina, Michelle Malkin, - - responded September 7 with "Not another damned commission." "There isn't a single Katrina victim who will benefit from hindsight hound dogs publishing thousand-page tomes with cherry-picked evidence that distorts the true narrative of what happened and why."

Contrast this with a statement released September 27 by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D., CA): "The American people have unequivocally called for an independent commission to find out the truth of what went wrong in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, not a partisan whitewash."

Tentacle columnist Richard Weldon Jr. commented September 22 on published accounts that Minister Louis Farrakhan has said that "a bomb, planted on purpose to flood the African-American community, might well have caused the hole in the levee system that allowed the Ninth Ward in New Orleans to flood." One can certainly hope that Minister Farrakhan's version of history is not the final version.

In his September 27 congressional testimony, the former head of FEMA, Michael D. Brown, characterized U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore as "a bull in the China closet..."

Yet, the Associated Press wrote on September 11 that the "Ragin' Cajun" General Honore "has won over even some of the government's harshest critics, including New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who blasted the Bush administration's initial response to his city's disaster."

In an interview that appeared on CNN September 20, a member of the media tried to bait General Honore into a story by asking him to compare and contrast between the emergency response for Hurricane Rita and Katrina. General Honore replied, "Don't get stuck on stupid. Let's talk about the future."

Well, let's talk about the future version of the history of Katrina and what there is available to learn. An entire website has evolved which is devoted to Katrina and the media: Katrina Coverage, "analyzing the news reports and politics of the New Orleans hurricane." It can found at It is well worth a look.

The Los Angeles Times printed a piece on September 27 entitled: "Katrina Takes a Toll on Truth, News Accuracy - Rumors supplanted accurate information and media magnified the problem. Rapes, violence and estimates of the dead were wrong" by Times Staff Writers Susannah Rosenblatt and James Rainey. Two memorable lines were an understatement: "Hyperbolic reporting spread through much of the media;" and "The media inaccuracies had consequences in the disaster zone."

On September 29, University of Texas at Austin Professor Marvin Olasky wrote a column on called "Three winners, three losers." He recounts that the media was a big loser in the events of September 2005. "National media that served as megaphones for hysteria and propaganda. Journalists circulated rumors. Reports . delayed volunteers and rescue workers. The sensational reports were also demeaning toward the overwhelmingly African-American part of the population that remained in New Orleans and received branding as savages."

Just as in the movie "Rashamon," historians researching Hurricane Katrina must ask: Why did the media or the political actors say what they said? What did she or he have to gain or lose? What is wrong with their ability to remember? Did they have a physical or mental problem that impaired their ability to observe the events?

We as a society must ask: Is the truth merely a luxury for the media or the "political winners" in this drama? Do people see what they want to see and say only what they want to hear? Is truth a black or white, off or on, concept? Or instead, is it dynamic: a spectrum with layers of truths: veiled by point of view?

The American public longs for a sober, clearly worded, intelligent and non-political explanation of events. The reactionary conversation involving uninformed simplistic conspiracy theories, political spinelessness and personal attacks, distorts and polarizes the collective discourse to such an extent that it renders many citizens skeptical about any discussion over national security and disaster planning.

In the end, if we can't depend on the media or elected leaders to level with us, whom can we depend on? Or will we all be stuck on stupid?

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at:

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