Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti, Among Other Things

Things were bad enough in Haiti when I was there last autumn. I never really gave the prospect of an earthquake a thought. If I had, I might have thrown up my hands because all the third-world housing hanging onto hills was enough to presage disaster when what could happen happened. It was almost a break from total disaster to see on ABC last night that the Hotel Montana took a hit. I almost stayed there and it was the hangout for Americans and Europeans so you inevitably met people there. But it was high on a hill, on one of the roads to Petionville, which is supposedly the fancy suburb but isn't as fancy as all that.

My friend who runs a project in Port-au-Prince is ok. He and his crew got under some tables so they wouldn't be hit by flying china etc. and seem to have come out of it all right. But how on earth he can hope to get anything done on his project--knowing him, he will pitch in and help as much as he can, which is a lot, because he has lots of basic skills and knows Haiti well.

I was hoping that the national penitentiary might have been damaged so that everyone would be let out. Don't laugh--this happened the last time there was a major government upheaval and it turned out to be a good thing for just about everyone. I saw the Physicians Without Borders medics on tv and recalled the doctor from Miami who came in to work with us on getting control of the prison guest list while he and his staff provided what treatment they could.

It's interesting to me that as there is very little that can be done to anticipate this kind of natural disaster, people respond as well as they can when it happens. They become very pragmatic and truly employ principles of triage, a word used terribly licentiously in connection with budgets and the like. Lexington, the columnist for The Economist, wrote this week about how he was man-handled just going to see someone in the U.S. Embassy in London by whoever the hired goons were guarding the doors.

His experience made me realise yet again how we still turn off so much of the world by trying to guarantee everyone that no terrorist of any stripe will get past our gate. Foreign countries now get back at us by terrorizing passengers getting on flights for the U.S. who undergo screening unlike that used to go anywhere else. The attitude of the uniformed screeners abroad--doubtless following the instructions of the Americans who hired them--resembled that of Claude Rains in Casablanca when he told Bogart that he had urged his men to be particularly destructive in their searching for the "usual suspects" so as to impress the Germans.

One yo-yo slips past a security guard taking an unauthorized break at Newark Airport and they shut the place down for hours. He was going to kiss his girl friend good-bye and in the end, I gather he's hardly getting penalized at all. The only ones to suffer are the thousands delayed and pushed around by our zero-tolerance idiocy: the minds that seem to think that by shutting the place down and rescreening everyone, you can guarantee safety.

It all started with the business about not allowing jokes at the security barriers. We need the equivalent of all the comics in It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (Milton Berle, Jonathan Winters, Phil Silvers, and of course, the most inimitable of all, Dick Shawn, later the star in The Producers movie in "Springtime for Hitler.") to counteract the two-bit big shots who cause us to spend billions in search of a security that is unobtainable.

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