Read: “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers
24 Mar 2010
I read this nearly straight through, which I almost never do. Zeitoun is about an amazing character—extraordinary enough to be worth writing about, but ordinary enough you can relate to him.
Don’t read on if you don’t want to know anything about what happens. Although I’ll try to keep plot spoiling to a minimum.
The way the authorities acted in this book is a perfect example of “elite panic”—how the elites imagine that things will descend into an “animalistic state” (as New Orleans’ mayor Ray Nagin put it) once the authorities aren’t around.
As Rebecca Solnit argues convincingly in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, what usually happens in disasters is that people come together and help each other out. In any disaster, the first responders are almost always ordinary people, because they happen to be on site when the disaster strikes.
That’s Zeitoun—one of these people who went around, rescuing others. But then, seemingly out of nothing other than fear, the authorities imagined that he and others were looters or terrorists.
You can read more about elite panic here, in two articles from January, that talk about elite panic and the perception of looting, with the Haiti earthquake in mind:
“‘Elite panic’ can slow aid in disasters”, Charlotte Observer
“Haiti, Disaster Sociology, Elite Panic, and Looting”, Resilience Science blog
But first, read “>Zeitoun, because more than any of these other books or articles, it will give you a visceral sense for what’s at stake—our very notions of community and humanity.