Philip Gourevitch writes: One of the more memorable headlines of the past quarter century read, simply, “If Bosnians were Dolphins.” It appeared in Commentary magazine, on an article by Edward Luttwak, which began, “If Bosnian Muslims had been bottle-nosed dolphins, would the world have allowed Croats and Serbs to slaughter them by the tens of thousands?” That question came to mind as Donald Trump flew south to spend a few hours in Puerto Rico, nearly two weeks after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria: two weeks during which it became clear that the Administration had done practically nothing to prepare the island for the alarmingly forecast storm; two weeks in which the federal response to the storm’s ravages has only gradually approached something like a mobilization that would have been appropriate on Day One for a much lesser calamity; two weeks in which nearly all of Puerto Rico has been without electricity, and more than half the population has been without access to potable water; two weeks in which Puerto Rico’s frail grew frailer, its sick grew sicker, its sense of abandonment grew more desperate; two weeks in which the President focussed on talking about what a great job he and his team were doing (“A-plus”), tweeting contempt at Puerto Ricans, collectively, and at the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, specifically; two weeks in which the relative effectiveness and success of the federal government’s preparation for and response to Hurricane Harvey’s assault on Texas and Irma’s rampage in Florida threw the dereliction of duty in Puerto Rico into ever starker relief; two weeks in which we were reminded that whenever we speak of a humanitarian crisis we are really speaking of a political crisis. All of which raises the question: If Puerto Ricans could vote, would they be so grossly ill served?
The press has been at pains to explain that Puerto Rico is not a foreign country but an American territory whose three and a half million people are U.S. citizens. Repeating this fact is essential service journalism: as the Times has reported, about half of America’s non-Puerto Rican population was unaware of that fact—and, as my colleague Amy Davidson Sorkin has written, Trump’s remarks did nothing to inform them otherwise. And, yet, Puerto Ricans are not citizens like the rest of us, because Puerto Rico is not a state. It is a so-called commonwealth of the United States, whose people are denied electoral representation in the federal government that decides their political destiny: no voice in Congress, no vote in Presidential elections. This arrangement, born of America’s conquest of the island, in the Spanish-American War, makes the islanders more like colonial subjects than citizens of a democratic republic. They are, in effect, second-class citizens. [Continue reading…]