There are times when one is moved to the core with pride for being an American. Seeing the response to the New Orleans disaster by individuals, by corporations, by schools, by business and celebrity moguls donating private copters and kitchen sinks, by homeowners opening their doors to the city’s homeless and by 6-year-olds smashing their kitties to contribute, this is one of those times. It is what, at its ordinary best, America is about.
There are also times when one is ashamed of being an American, when (in this case) one cringes over the incompetence of the president and his team of vacationers and invisibles, whose self-righteousness, whose provincial hubris and stupidity, so much on display in Iraq, have come home to roost. This is one of those times, too. It is what, even at its worst, America should never be about.
It’s nice to point out the outpouring of good samaritanism. But those in power are doing so to ride on the Samaritans’ coattails. The back-patting is out of place considering the extent of the betrayal of New Orleans and its consequences. For every donated million after the fact there’ll still be two, three or more deaths that should have been prevented and thousands of lives unnecessarily uprooted and demolished, maybe for good.
The betrayal of New Orleans goes beyond anything justifiable by the usual fickleness of natural catastrophes. This betrayal has something of the criminal, because New Orleans fell victim to a clash between those who warned of just such a tragedy, who for years presented plans that would have almost certainly prevented it, and those who willfully refused to enact the plans. The refuseniks won. New Orleans fell victim to the clash between those who thought homeland security was truly an opportunity to prepare the homeland for catastrophe and those who profited from homeland security as a political prop and a bottomless public trough. The profiteers won. Finally, New Orleans fell victim to a clash between the willing and the incompetent, and the incompetents won. Their victory is New Orleans today, an anti-conquest, laureled in a parade of judgments and indifference that wasn’t by any means limited to the powerful.
You could hear brutality in the comfortable reaction of some to the looters of New Orleans while the city’s thousands drowned: “I can guarantee you,” one employee was telling another in the nice-and-chilled produce department of a Palm Coast supermarket early last week, “if they popped one of them in the head, the looting would stop.” You could see the early indifference to New Orleanians, the city with the highest proportion of poor and black residents in the nation, in the way television reacted to the story. Following the 9/11 attacks, every network and every other cable channel, including ones devoted exclusively to zonked out entertainment, patched in wall-to-wall coverage day after day. In this case not even the networks pre-empted much of their regular programming. Summer’s repeats were cheaper than live tragedy. Two days after Katrina struck, CNN’s Nancy Grace on Headline News was devoting her prime-time hour to the missing (white) woman in Aruba.
In almost every way that counts — the human toll, the effects on the economy, the long-term consequence of an entire city destroyed and its population displaced — New Orleans’ fate has been worse than anything the country suffered in 2001. Only psychologically were the 2001 attacks more immediately scarring, and even then, mostly because the country thought itself somehow immune from both terrorism on such a barbaric scale and from intelligence failures to prevent it. National pride was devastated as much as ground zero. In 2001, vengefulness and martial patriotism came to the rescue. The man who revels in calling himself the commander-in-chief, in playing to military audiences and inveighing the first person singular in his speeches as if it were a pronouncement of divine right, found his stage and an audience starved for his camouflaged promises to get the “evil” ones. He had targets, fanatics to demonize, places to invade.
Katrina offers no such targets. Only false bravura laid bare, four years and who knows how many billions of dollars of practicing homeland security for nothing, and leaders falling all over each other with the old blanket absolutions: No single person is to blame, everyone is to blame, and this is no time for blame, only action. But it’s no time to play dumb to it all, either, though with this commander-in-zilch it’s always been too late for that.
PIERRE TRISTAM is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org