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Themes and Colors
Family, Community, and Home Theme Icon
Crime, Justice, and Injustice Theme Icon
Faith, Perseverance, and Dignity Theme Icon
Human vs. Natural Tragedy Theme Icon
Islam and Islamophobia Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Zeitoun, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Crime, Justice, and Injustice Theme Icon

With Zeitoun stranded in New Orleans and Kathy in Arizona with their children, two narratives on the fallout from Hurricane Katrina unfold. One, which Kathy hears largely from the media, is that Katrina has turned the city into a war zone, with stealing, shooting, and other illegal activity quickly becoming the norm. This sense of emergency creates a disconnect with her husband’s experience, at least initially: while he sees sporadic examples of looting, the days after the storm are much more defined by a vulnerable, desperate population seeking help or escape. Again and again, Zeitoun asks for help from among the police force, which has been highly militarized and is patrolling neighborhoods in military-style combat gear. He is almost always rebuffed, as it seems that they are there not to find people in need of assistance, but instead to “keep order” against only the vaguest of threats.

In fact, the entire legal and justice system seems to break down after Katrina, as Zeitoun is taken from prison to prison, refused a phone call, and held without bail and without being charged for a crime. A makeshift jail—Camp Greyhound—is quickly built and filled with supplies for the guards and employees, while a few miles away, the Superdome, which is packed with New Orleans residents, has nowhere near the same level of resources.

According to Eggers, the authorities’ post-Katrina emphasis on combating crime and lawlessness served not to uphold justice, but in fact to create injustice—a position that, the book argues, has much to do with the race and ethnicity of those who most needed help.

Crime, Justice, and Injustice ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Crime, Justice, and Injustice appears in each chapter of Zeitoun. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Crime, Justice, and Injustice Quotes in Zeitoun

Below you will find the important quotes in Zeitoun related to the theme of Crime, Justice, and Injustice.
Part 4: Tuesday September 6 Quotes

When Zeitoun and the others entered the main room of the station, immediately fifty pairs of eyes, those of soldiers and police officers and military personnel, were upon them. There were no other civilians inside. It was as if the entire operation, this bus station-turned-military base, had been arranged for them.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Nasser Dayoob, Todd Gambino, Ronnie
Related Symbols: Camp Greyhound
Page Number: 210-211
Explanation and Analysis:

Zeitoun has been arrested with the three other men in the house, and his experience is beginning to take on a surreal quality. He has no idea why he's been arrested, where he'll be taken, or what will happen next. All he can tell is that what began as a natural tragedy, a devastating hurricane, has now morphed into something quite different. Rather than a rescue operation, the officials here seem to have quickly cobbled together a makeshift center based around crime and even war. At the same time, Zeitoun cannot see any evidence that such a vast structural operation stems from a real need at all. He believes he hasn't done anything wrong, and he doesn't see any other guilty parties: instead, these institutions seem to have cropped up almost of their own will. As the book shifts away from an inspiring section on Zeitoun's feats in helping others after the hurricane, it turns towards a more somber aspect of the days and weeks after Katrina, when social trauma and injustice proved even greater than natural disaster.


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Until this point, Zeitoun had not been charged with a crime. He had not been read his rights. He did not know why he was being held. Now he was in a small white room being asked by two soldiers, each of them in full camouflage and holding automatic rifles, to remove his clothes.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

After waiting for hours, Zeitoun is taken inside a room for processing, and we are about to learn in painful detail what indignities he is subject to, such as stripping bare in front of strangers and being treated roughly and with suspicion. Here, Eggers emphasizes the total disconnect between Zeitoun's position and the way in which he is being treated. First, he stresses that this processing is not following the typical legal procedures that are in place to ensure that people are considered innocent until proven guilty, like being read their rights or knowing what crime they're being charged for.

This passage also is meant to reiterate the extreme militarization of the official response to Katrina. Rather than entering with doctors and rescue materials, those in charge send in policemen and soldiers that look like they are straight out of a war zone, complete with camouflage and massive weapons. Throughout this section, the book will attempt to show how disproportionate this response was to the reality on the ground. The institutions meant to combat crime and injustice, the book argues, actually exhibited the greatest example of injustice themselves.

Part 4: Wednesday September 7 Quotes

Who did this work? Were there contractors and laborers working around the clock on a prison days after the hurricane? It was mind-boggling. It was all the more remarkable given that while the construction was taking place, on September 2, 3, and 4, thousands of residents were being plucked from rooftops, were being discovered alive and dead in attics.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun
Related Symbols: Camp Greyhound
Page Number: 227
Explanation and Analysis:

As a businessman and a contractor, Zeitoun is adept at judging the amount of labor and time needed to accomplish certain tasks of construction. As he looks around Camp Greyhound, he marvels at this feat, recognizing just how much work it must have taken. In this passage, Zeitoun first wonders about the precise logistics of this process, failing to imagine how he, if in charge of it, would have been able to carry it out. Almost immediately, he compares this remarkable process with what he knows, from personal experience, to have been the real needs of people in New Orleans in the days after the hurricane.

Though he doesn't say it explicitly, the comparison suggests that valuable time, money, and energy were siphoned away from those who needed rescuing and put into the construction of this facility whose function Zeitoun still doesn't entirely grasp. Once again, the book aims to portray the disconnect between the reality of Hurricane Katrina, which essentially created domestic refugees in need of rescue and of medical help, and the response, which emphasized the criminal and even warlike dangers after the storm.

The ban on phone calls was, then, purely punitive, just as the pepper-spraying of the child-man had been born of a combination of opportunity, cruelty, ambivalence, and sport. There was no utility in that, just as there was no utility in barring all prisoners from contacting the outside world.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun
Related Symbols: Camp Greyhound
Page Number: 236
Explanation and Analysis:

Zeitoun is feeling enormously guilty for having dismissed Kathy's concerns, especially now that he knows she must be so worried about him. He thinks his situation would all be much better if he could only have a chance to call her. In addition, according to American law, anyone arrested has the legal right to a phone call - a right that Zeitoun has not been granted since he's been here. After running through various possibilities for why this might be the case, Zeitoun settles on one: the guards have simply chosen the lack of the phone call as punishment for people they assume to be guilty of something, even if they haven't said what. 

Zeitoun has been trying to find a rational way to account for the behavior of the officials at Camp Greyhound, but now he is beginning to realize that reason and utility are not going to serve him here. A structure ostensibly set up to hold criminals and keep people safe is doing the opposite: indeed, the forces meant to work for justice are exhibiting shockingly unjust behavior. Because there are no real reasons for the guards to keep these people prisoners, they invent various means of punishing them, as if they've entered a bizarre universe where the rules, laws, and values of society no longer apply.

Part 4: Saturday September 17 Quotes

He had long believed that the police acted in the best interests of the citizens they served. That the military was accountable, reasonable, and was kept in check by concentric circles of regulations, laws, common sense, common decency. But now those hopes could be put to rest.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

Confined for 23 hours a day to his cell, with nothing to do but think, Zeitoun muses painfully on the subject of his imprisonment and what it implies for his view of American society and the American government. Earlier, Zeitoun's attitude towards prejudiced citizens was described as one of a "disappointed parent," who believed their intentions were good, their values real and true, if only covered by a veneer of weakness or fear. Now he is beginning to question such a basic assumption, given that he has witnessed cruelty that seems to play nonchalantly, even gleefully, with injustice. He can no longer expect that Americans are mostly good deep down, nor can he even expect that their uglier sides will be "kept in check" by community values and common sense, much less by laws and statutes. He is beginning to feel that there is a disease at the very heart of the institutions of his adopted country, from the police to the military, if such institutions have allowed a case like his to go on.

He thought of bycatch. It was a fishing term. They’d used it when he was a boy, fishing for sardines by the light of the moon they’d made. When they pulled in the net, there were thousands of sardines, of course, but there were other creatures too, life they had not intended to catch and for which they had no use. Often they would not know until too late.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

As Zeitoun attempts to determine what it means for him to be here, stuck in a jail cell despite having done nothing to warrant his arrest - and despite having failed to receive any notice of his charges - he returns to his past in order to search for an analogy that might allow him to better understand his situation. As a child, Zeitoun had often gone fishing with his brother, and even once thought that he might continue his family's trade and fish for a living. Now he recalls one of the more somber sides of catching sardines - the fact that many other living creatures would often be unintentionally caught up in the catch, but if not dumped back into the sea would probably die as well.

Zeitoun sees his own situation as one of "bycatch." In response to the natural tragedy of Katrina, government institutions cranked into action with the broad intent of keeping people safe and helping them recover. But much of the response included far too sweeping regulations, ones that were meant to combat real crime and injustice but instead ended up sweeping innocent people into the fold, with little concern for what would happen to them.

He had risked too much in the hopes that he might do something to match the deeds of his brother Mohammed. No, it had never been a conscious part of his motivation—he had done what he could in the drowned city because he was there, it needed to be done, and he could do it. But somewhere in his gut, was there not some hope that he, too, could bring pride to the family, as Mohammed had so many years ago? […] And was this imprisonment God’s way of curbing his pride, tempering his vainglorious dreams?

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Mohammed Zeitoun
Page Number: 264
Explanation and Analysis:

Still trapped in his solitary cell, Zeitoun has the chance to return to his actions on the canoe after Katrina with a more honest, reflective eye. He recognizes that his motivations were not entirely selfless. Of course, he was motivated by a realization that there was a real need for people in the city to be rescued, and when he heard cries for help his first response was to go to their aid. But he also begins, now, to admit to himself that he wanted to live up to his brother's legacy, to do something that would be just as admirable in the eyes of his family and his community.

Now, Zeitoun continues to draw on his faith in order to understand and structure his response to his current situation. Having understood his time helping others as a kind of divine test, he now sees his unjust imprisonment as another kind of test, or even a kind of divine punishment. He wonders if his vain hopes for glory were destined to end in misery and indignity, if only so that God might show him the folly of such selfish dreams. At other moments, Zeitoun has been certain that the institutions involved are at fault for his imprisonment: now, he combines that view with another one that has more to do with his individual morality and relationship to his faith.

Part 4: Tuesday September 27 Quotes

Kathy fell apart. She wailed and screamed. Somehow this, knowing that her husband was so close but that these layers of bureaucracy and incompetence were keeping her from him—it was too much. She cried out of frustration and rage. She felt like she was watching a baby drown, unable to do anything to save it.

Related Characters: Kathy Zeitoun
Page Number: 280
Explanation and Analysis:

Kathy has finally gotten incredibly close to knowing where her husband is and being able to contact him, or even track him down and see him. Now she knows that a court hearing will take place, but no one will give her the information about it, saying that it's "privileged information," even though she's Zeitoun's wife. Until now, Kathy has been anxious and upset, but has maintained her cool enough to do all that she can to find her husband. Now she breaks down. While Zeitoun is on the inside of the bureaucratic nightmare, she is attempting to break through it from the outside, and is coming up against just as many examples of incompetence and frustrating irrationality as Zeitoun has experienced. Kathy has fought to persevere through not knowing if her husband was alive or dead, but now this is almost worse, since she knows he is alive but cannot reach him - for no reason of her own.

Part 4: Thursday September 29 Quotes

They held each other for a long moment. She could feel his shoulder blades, his ribs. His neck seemed so thin and fragile, his arms skeletal. She pulled back, and his eyes were the same—green, long-lashed, touched with honey—but they were tired, defeated. She had never seen this in him. He had been broken.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Kathy Zeitoun
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:

Finally, Zeitoun is released and he and Kathy are reunited. But what was supposed to be an occasion for great joy and relief becomes instead, for Kathy, one of enormous disillusionment and sadness. As she embraces him, she sees the physical reminders of what he has been through. Not only is he thin and unhealthy-looking, but the very look in his eyes is different, defeated and exhausted. This both upsets and frightens Kathy. She has not been able to talk to Zeitoun and does not know in any detail what he has been through: she can only see the effects.

Like the natural tragedy of Katrina, the human-scale violence done to Zeitoun thus also creates material traces. However, these traces cannot speak to the full extent of what Zeitoun went through. Until now, Zeitoun and Kathy have shared almost every detail of their lives together, calling each other several times a day through their roles as husband and wife in addition to business partners. Now a gap has widened between Kathy and Zeitoun, one that she cannot see how she'll be able to bridge.

Part 5: Fall 2008 Quotes

Gonzalez talked about how the system is supposed to work: police officers investigate, make arrests, and then hand the process over to the judicial system. Under normal circumstances, if the men were innocent, he maintained, they would have been given a phone call and the opportunity to post bail. “They should have gotten a phone call,” he said.

Related Characters: Ralph Gonzalez (speaker), Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Kathy Zeitoun
Page Number: 304
Explanation and Analysis:

Gonzalez, one of the officers that arrested Zeitoun, is interviewed for the book years after Katrina, and tries to explain the process that he followed in attempting to combat crime in the days and weeks after the storm. He seems to have an abstract understanding of the procedures that are in place to ensure that people are given due process and are considered innocent until proven guilty. However, he cannot seem to give a satisfactory answer to the question of what went wrong in the course of Zeitoun's arrest.

Finally, he seems to admit that according to what he has been told, Zeitoun was not treated properly by the authorities. Gonzalez may well be reluctant to admit personal wrongdoing, but it also seems that he is willing to acknowledge that his institution or others shared wrongdoing. It is not an entirely satisfying response, though it does help Kathy and Zeitoun gain validation from others that what they went through was wrong.

On the one hand, knowing that these two police officers had not purposely hunted and arrested a man because he was Middle Eastern gave them some comfort. But knowing that Zeitoun’s ordeal was caused instead by systemic ignorance and malfunction—and perhaps long-festering paranoia on the part of the National Guard and whatever other agencies were involved—was unsettling. It said, quite clearly, that this wasn’t a case of a bad apple or two in the barrel. The barrel itself was rotten.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Kathy Zeitoun, Donald Lima, Ralph Gonzalez
Page Number: 307
Explanation and Analysis:

After interviewing the police officers responsible for arresting Zeitoun, he and Kathy have a more accurate account of the reasons for his arrest—the event that triggered the rest of his harrowing experience at Camp Greyhound and in jail. Zeitoun had come to agree with Kathy that prejudice may well have played a part in his arrest. But it is almost worse for them to realize that this wasn't just a case of one racist or prejudiced officer or guard. 

Instead, we learn in this passage, the problem was "systemic" - reaching far broader than the mistakes made by one or two individuals. This is unsettling because it means that, for things to change, a great deal more is needed than simply firing or disciplining one person, or even of getting a few people to understand the root of their prejudices. Instead, it is necessary to think about the ignorance, incompetence, and even paranoia at the heart of major government bureaucracies, which allowed Zeitoun to slip through the cracks.

To dial a number given to you by a man in a cage, to tell the voice on the other end, “I saw him.” Is that complicated? Is that an act of great heroism in the United States of America? It should not be so.

Related Characters: Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Kathy Zeitoun, Missionary
Page Number: 319
Explanation and Analysis:

As Kathy struggles herself with the aftermath of Zeitoun's arrest and imprisonment, she often returns to the fact of how easily things could have been different if someone had shown greater compassion or humanity. The one person she does feel grateful towards, and whom she'd like to thank, is the missionary who took Kathy's phone number from Zeitoun and called her to tell her that he saw her husband, and that he was alive. 

Now, Eggers takes a step back to question what counts and what should count as great heroism in such circumstances. He acknowledges that the missionary did Kathy and Zeitoun a great service. But he also underlines how small and insignificant an act it was, when compared to the structural injustice and unfairness of what Zeitoun went through. He thus suggests that our standards for heroism have been deflated by such injustice, which makes even the smallest show of humanity seem incredible.