Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part II. FIVE STEPS
Whatever doubt remained about getting a backup citizenship was extinguished by the news I heard during the ride to my hotel. Hurricane Katrina had just laid waste to New Orleans. Instead of a press tour, I spent most of the next week in my room, listening to reports of bodies floating in the water, elderly people drowned in their homes, civilians shot in the streets, police looting stores, and humanitarian shelters turned into humanitarian crises.
When it was all over, 1,836 people had died.
More than the iris scanning, more than Bush’s reelection, more than the Iraq War, more than the destruction of the World Trade Center, this was what shattered every last illusion about my country that remained.
Unlike 9/11, the government had advance notice that a disaster was threatening to hit one of its cities. And still, the greatest country on earth not only failed to take care of its own people but took five days just to respond appropriately. According to the House of Representatives committee that investigated the response, the disaster was too large for the city, the state, the federal government, and the Red Cross to handle. In the end, the report continued, the Federal Emergency Management Agency “did not have a logistics capacity sophisticated enough to fully support the massive number of Gulf coast victims.”
And with a population of half a million, New Orleans is a relatively small city. So what would happen if an equivalent disaster struck a city of 3.8 million, like Los Angeles, or 8.2 million, like New York?
Something changed in me, as it did for many people, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It felt like the day I first beat my father at arm wrestling. In that moment, I realized that he could no longer protect me. I had to take care of myself.
An anarchist is someone who believes that people are responsible enough to maintain order in the absence of government. That week, I realized I was something very different: a Fliesian. I began to subscribe to the view of human nature depicted in the William Golding novel Lord of the Flies. After reading reports of the chaos, violence, and suffering in New Orleans, it became clear that when the system is smashed, some of us start smashing each other.
Most survivalists are also Fliesians. That’s why they stockpile guns. They’re planning to use them not to shoot enemy soldiers, but to shoot the neighbors trying to steal their supplies.
With almost every one of my book interviews canceled, I sat in the hotel room all week, fixated on the news. In other stories, more pictures of American troops torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib were surfacing; the value of the American dollar continued to plummet; Osama bin Laden still hadn’t been caught; angry Palestinians were setting the West Bank town of Taybeh ablaze; civilians in western Sudan were being killed and raped daily in a genocide the world wasn’t doing anything to stop; and President Bush was threatening Iran the same way he’d once threatened Iraq.
It felt like a powder keg had been lit.
It might blow tomorrow, perhaps a year from now, maybe in ten years. No one knows when exactly. But it will definitely blow.
On my last night in town, my friends threw a small party for me at Tao, a bar near my hotel, to celebrate the release of the book.
Eventually the cast dwindled to just five of us, sitting around a small table. Among them were two of my closest friends: Zan, a gregarious drinker and ladies’ man who’d flown in from Vancouver, and Craig, a heavyset Internet entrepreneur who devoured science magazines with the same excitement other men read Playboy.
“Have you seen the new documentary about the Enron collapse?” Craig asked, unbuttoning the jacket of his baggy white suit. A tireless orator, Craig enjoyed turning me on to movies, music, and ideas in the hope that I would write about them. “It more or less proves that the California energy crisis was completely faked to drive Enron stock prices up. They play actual phone recordings of traders calling a California power plant and ordering it to shut down. Those traders didn’t care about making millions of people suffer in order to make a little more money. And that’s the problem with America. The people don’t matter anymore.”
Like me, Craig was a runner. Except he had a different way of running. Where I wanted to avoid dying of unnatural causes, he wanted to avoid dying of natural causes.
In a few months, he was going to visit the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryonics lab, where he planned to sign up to be frozen and preserved in the hope that a future generation would be able to thaw him. I had promised to accompany him—as a friend and, he hoped, as a potential freezermate.
“If there were another terrorist attack in America—even deadlier than the World Trade Center—would you be surprised?” I asked Craig and my remaining friends.
Every one of them answered no.
“I’d be surprised if there wasn’t another attack,” added Craig.
“And if it happened, do you think the government would be able to evacuate you and restore order?” I pressed.
“Definitely not,” Craig said.
“So if the government couldn’t save one small city from a disaster it knew was coming, then how is it going to save all of us when the shit really hits the fan?”
A babble of alcohol-loosened voices clamored with predictions about the next threat, but no one disagreed. Craig listened silently, preparing his next argument.
“Let me ask you all a question then,” he interrupted after a few minutes. “Everyone pretty much agrees that terrorists hate America and Americans, and want to do everything they can to undermine or even destroy us, right?”
“That’s definitely one of their priorities,” I agreed.
“Most people think that they want to do this by terrorizing us—by blowing things up and making us scared to leave the house.”
“That’s why they’re called terrorists.”
“But have you ever stopped to think maybe that’s not their plan? Osama bin Laden is not as stupid and uneducated as most Americans believe. Maybe his plan is to destroy our economy. Because that’s the only way to truly put an end to America as we know it.” He put down his beer and paused to let his words sink in. He was in his element now. “And our government played into his plan perfectly, starting wars that cost hundreds of billions of dollars and have no end in sight.”
“You should just come to Canada,” interrupted Zan. “You can stay at my house. Hotel Zan.”
Craig ignored him and continued. “That’s why he bombed the trains in Spain. He wanted to scare our allies into withdrawing from Iraq, so we’d have to shoulder the financial burden of the war alone.”
“Come to Canada,” Zan repeated. “Nobody hates us. Nobody thinks we’re stupid, except maybe Americans. Plus we have free health care, stronger beer, and you can get the good codeine Tylenol without a prescription.”
“And he’s winning,” Craig went on, glaring at Zan as if daring him to interrupt again. “Our economy is dying. Look.” He held out a pudgy hand and hit his pointer finger. “We have a seven-hundred-billion-dollar trade deficit.” Then he hit his middle finger. “A seven-trillion-dollar debt.” Now his ring finger. “A recession.” Finally, his pinky. “And inflation. Gas prices went up forty-one cents the other day. People are getting angry.”
“I’m out of here,” I blurted. I’d hit my breaking point. It was time to make good on the promise I’d made in Mrs. Kaufman’s class, the promise I’d made while reading War Cards, the promise I’d made after receiving my draft postcard, the promise I’d made when Bush was reelected. It was time to find a safe haven overseas. “I’m getting the fuck out of here.”
“Stay with me,” Zan offered.
It was the most depressing book release party I’d ever been to.
If any kind of cataclysm should happen in America today, considering that 88 percent of the population doesn’t even have a U.S. passport, most people would be trapped here. But I wouldn’t have to panic when other countries closed their borders to fleeing Americans, nor would I end up stranded in a refugee camp at the border like so many others who’d been sucker-punched by history. With a second citizenship, I’d already be preapproved to live in another country.
And if I ever found myself in a situation where terrorists were kidnapping or executing American hostages, I could use my second passport to prove I wasn’t a U.S. citizen and escape with my life. Even if nothing bad ever happened, I’d be able to more easily do things forbidden to ordinary Americans, like traveling to Cuba.
As soon as I returned to my hotel room, I opened my laptop and searched for lawyers and companies specializing in immigration law, diplomatic passports, and second citizenships. Within a few hours, I’d sent fifteen e-mails and made ten international phone calls, setting off a chain of events that would change my life.