“devouring babies raw and tearing up grandmothers with our bare hands”

Looking Back, September 11, 2001. Photo by Felicia Megginson.

AT: One of the most interesting ideas in the book is the concept of “elite panic”—the way that elites, during disasters and their aftermath, imagine that the public is not only in danger but also a source of danger. You show in case after case how elites respond in destructive ways, from withholding essential information, to blocking citizen relief efforts, to protecting property instead of people. As you write in the book, “there are grounds for fear of a coherent insurgent public, not just an overwrought, savage one.”

RS: The term “elite panic” was coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers. From the beginning of the field in the 1950s to the present, the major sociologists of disaster—Charles Fritz, Enrico Quarantelli, Kathleen Tierney, and Lee Clarke—proceeding in the most cautious, methodical, and clearly attempting-to-be-politically-neutral way of social scientists, arrived via their research at this enormous confidence in human nature and deep critique of institutional authority. It’s quite remarkable.

Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature, which I sometimes think is their own human nature. I mean, people don’t become incredibly wealthy and powerful by being angelic, necessarily. They believe that only their power keeps the rest of us in line and that when it somehow shrinks away, our seething violence will rise to the surface—that was very clear in Katrina. Timothy Garton Ash and Maureen Dowd and all these other people immediately jumped on the bandwagon and started writing commentaries based on the assumption that the rumors of mass violence during Katrina were true. A lot of people have never understood that the rumors were dispelled and that those things didn’t actually happen; it’s tragic.

But there’s also an elite fear—going back to the 19th century—that there will be urban insurrection. It’s a valid fear. I see these moments of crisis as moments of popular power and positive social change. The major example in my book is Mexico City, where the ’85 earthquake prompted public disaffection with the one-party system and, therefore, the rebirth of civil society.

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