BOOK REVIEW: ZEITOUN
Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, Vintage Books,United States, 2010, 368 pages: ISBN 0307387941. Softcover $24.95.
Reviewed by Professor Ross Buckley (Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales)
This is a beautifully written story of a man who stayed on in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He stayed, in the first instance, to look after his properties. But he owned a canoe, and found that a man with a canoe could do much good. He rescued elderly people, fed dogs trapped in houses, and directed rescue teams to where they were needed.
A good man, doing good. A building contractor who, while a Muslim, took special care when renovating a church of any faith. He was sure that God watched such work especially closely, so he told his men it must be done with special care and with soul.
Each day, at the same time, he paddled to one of his rental properties so he could phone his wife, who had fled the city with their children. By some miracle, this property had a functioning telephone line. One of his tenants was still there, Todd Gambino. One day Zeitoun met Nasser Dayoob, a fellow Syrian he knew a little, so he invited him to stay in the property. A little later another man turned up, Ronnie, a 35-year-old white guy. Zeitoun had never met him before, but he let him stay.
So, it came to pass that a week after the levies broke and New Orleans was inundated, Zeitoun was in the house with these three other men when suddenly six heavily armed men in flak jackets burst in: two police, a couple of national guardsmen and some private sector mercenaries.
When interviewed later, the two police officers in the team said the men looked like they were up to no good. There were possessions piled on the dining table that looked suspicious. (In fact these possessions had been rescued from the flooded ground floor below.) And the men appeared shocked and “looked guilty”.
This is a story of how the rule of law breaks down when law enforcement becomes panicked and heavy-handed. Who wouldn’t have appeared shocked and bewildered when, after a week of living in an eerily silent watery city, six heavily armed and armoured police and troops burst into your living room?
Months later, the story of the arrest came to light. A police officer saw four men looting a drug store. The men fled in a white dinghy with a blue stripe powered by an outboard. The officer couldn’t give chase as he was rescuing some people. Two days later he saw a similar looking boat tied up to Zeitoun’s house. When he saw it and the four men inside, he put two and two together, came up with five, and rushed off to return with an armed team.
Nasser had his life savings, $10,000, in cash with him, because he didn’t trust banks. Todd worked delivering delayed luggage from the airport, so he had detailed maps and directions with him. All of a sudden, in an environment in which calm and rational analysis was absent, the large amount of cash, the detailed maps and directions, the similarities between the boats, all seemed highly suspicious to law enforcement. And there were possessions piled on a table. None of the possessions were sold by the drug store the officer had seen being looted, but what the heck, possessions in a pile on a dining table – clear evidence of criminal activity.
So the four men were arrested and even though they appeared before judicial proceedings, the four were incarcerated for between one and eight months, for absolutely nothing. They were not allowed to phone anyone. They were never told of their rights or of the charges against them. They were not given access to legal advice or medical care, even though Zeitoun had a badly infected foot. All were totally innocent of anything.
This is a book for all lawyers who wonder whether what they do really matters.
For instance, Kathy, Zeitoun’s wife, had fled the city with their children. She still suffers from a form of post-traumatic stress from the harrowing weeks spent not knowing whether her husband was alive or dead. Yet the deepest scars came from an incident after she knew her husband was alive. The Department of Homeland Security had called and confirmed that he was alive and well and that there would be a court hearing to determine the charges against him. Kathy asked when and where the hearing would be held and was told: “We can’t tell you that. It is privileged information.” She asked to speak to a supervisor, and to the supervisor’s supervisor, but always the response was that no one could be told where the hearing would be held because this was privileged information. And it was this that did the most damage, being told the location of her husband’s hearing was “privileged information”, in her words: “I felt cracked open … It broke me.” Suddenly her nation was in charge of her husband’s fate and the most basic tenets of justice were utterly absent.
The bail hearing was held in private and bail set at $75,000 for a charge of looting property valued at $500. The prosecutor had sought bail of $150,000. The legal system was panicked, all sense of proportion gone.
This is the story of Zeitoun. The story of the three men arrested with him is a sideline, but the stories of Todd, Nasser and Ronnie are in some ways even more instructive. All four men were completely innocent. The charges against all four were eventually dropped. There seemed to be no racial overtones to the arrest and only a few in the subsequent treatment: Zeitoun and Nasser were at times detained in solitary confinement and otherwise treated more harshly. Yet Zeitoun was released first, principally because he was able to get a message out to his wife through a minister of religion visiting the gaol, and she started making waves with the authorities. Nasser was released in six months, while Todd served five months and Ronnie eight. These are appallingly long periods of harsh imprisonment, for nothing.
The rule of law completely failed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but the reasons it did so are more complex than racism or post-9/11 fear of Muslims.
This is a book that points directly to something that is broken in America today. In the aftermath of a hurricane, a part of America became deeply Kafka-esque. The most basic tenets of the rule of law, and constitutional rights, were ignored completely, in some cases for many months. Police, national guardsmen, troops and, worst of all, lawyers and judicial authorities panicked, and lost all sense of what mattered most.
The media played its part in this degeneration. The immediate reporting of the aftermath of the hurricane was disgracefully overhyped. The media reported that babies were being raped in the Superdome and New Orleans was at the mercy of marauding gangs of heavily armed, lawless men. None of this was true, but the media had failed to verify before publishing. This meant many of the troops and police who were sent into New Orleans entered in a state of high fear bordering on paranoia.
One suspects that America’s poor public education system also played its part in this debacle. The people on the ground in the police, national guard, and army were the product of a system that fails so many of its students. When called on to remain calm and make reasoned judgments, it seems many did not have the internal resources to do so.
Yet I am speculating here. Despite having lived in the United States for five years, visited many times since, and being qualified to practise law in New York, I doubt that I am qualified to analyse what is broken in today’s America. Yet no one could read this book without concluding that something is very wrong there. The stark contrast between the collapse of responsible law enforcement in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the magnificent manner in which north Queensland responded to Cyclone Yasi in early 2011, a cyclone of comparable strength, in an admittedly less populated area, drives the point home.
Nonetheless, this book holds a strong warning for us. The federal and State governments have spent the past decade conferring vastly increased powers upon our intelligence agencies and police in response to the “war on terror”. These new powers make distinctly possible, for the first time in our national history, something similar happening here.
Zeitoun is more than the story of a profoundly mistreated man in New Orleans in extraordinary circumstances. It is a warning about the inherent fragility of the rule of law, and how we must, at all times, work to strengthen it and resist the efforts of legislatures that erode it through misconceived legislation. It is natural for the police, ASIO and other arms of government to seek to increase their powers so as to be able, as they see it, to do their jobs better.
It is for the courts, and for individual lawyers, to be ever vigilant against these encroachments on the rule of law. Individual lawyers, in particular, have a real responsibility to speak out against such legislation, and to educate the members of their communities about how fragile and worthy of protection are the aspects of the rule of law that prevent what happened in New Orleans from happening here.
The citation for this review is (2011) 85 ALJ 773 at 774.