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God Help the Victims of Hurricane Katrina

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The United States of America, those of us who live here are fond of saying, is the greatest country in the world. Such superlatives have extremely little to do with things like American freedom, American opportunity, the American constitution, the American economy, or even American culture. Countries are defined by one simple thing: their people. And America is likewise defined by its people, so if America is the greatest country in the world, it can ONLY be because we have the greatest people in the world. Regardless of their political or religious or social beliefs.

If the American people are judged by their support and assistance to the victims of Hurricane Katrina — our own fellow Americans — we are not setting the bar very high. Because the way that Katrina victims are being treated is disgusting. Disgraceful. Miserable. Pathetic. And shameful.

Some of us have been this way from the beginning. We’ve been so much more interested in finger-pointing (“Bush is responsible for this disaster! Brown! Chertoff! Blanco! Nagin!”) and gloating (“Serves them right. They should have left when they had the chance.” Or, “If they weren’t sinners, God wouldn’t have punished them so.”) that we haven’t stopped to consider that it says as much about us as it does about federal/state/local government officials or residents of New Orleans. One person on this very website gleefully announced that they wouldn’t be contributing a cent to the Katrina effort because, to paraphrase, “government policies and actions are responsible for this and it’s time they cleaned up their own mess for once.” It doesn’t matter whether he was referring to the U.S. government, the Louisiana/Mississippi government, or the New Orleans government (and Biloxi, and how many other cities that were decimated?)…many who will read this already know to whom I refer. The idea that anyone, of any ethos, would be so selfish and uncompassionate just for the sake of making their political point is absolutely repulsive.

But it’s not just people who were selfish and uncaring from the beginning. Many of us did what we could at the beginning and then stopped doing what we could, despite the fact that the recipients of our early goodwill and generosity are still in need of it — many in just as much, or more, need today than they were when the storm hit. We got jaded. We started calling people who were living off of FEMA funds “moochers” and “thieves,” never stopping to consider whether those people had any other possible means of survival. When they got evicted from their hotels, or had to live in tents, or couldn’t get put in trailers despite the surplus of available ones, we considered it part of the School of Hard Knocks and said that well, it was time that they learned to fend for themselves. Did we ever stop to consider whether they had the means with which to fend? Or did we simply not give a shit whether they did or not? How many of us sincerely believe the simple truth that these people would not live off of our tax dollars if they had any other choice? And again, how many of us care?

How many of us are still willing to give our money and our time to helping rebuild the homes and lives of people who can’t rebuild their own? How many of us are writing to or calling our representatives and DEMANDING better funding and treatment for Katrina victims? How many people could care less about the fact that, of 25,000 homes that were once in the Lower Ninth Ward, today there are less than 50 inhabitable ones — forcing people to slug it out in the uninhabitable ones, complete with exposure to the elements and contamination.

Biloxi, on the other hand, essentially no longer exists. And even the Lower Ninth Ward, in all its squalor, gets more attention.

Americans, taken as a whole, can’t even seem to show any genuine human decency to our own people. That’s certainly the way it appears: why else would this happen in the richest country on Earth? We could and should be coming together as a nation to give and to help and to provide…we aren’t. It makes me sad and ashamed.

I include myself in this indictment, too. I don’t like to think of myself as a bad person…but being a not-bad person is not the same as being a good one. I hope I can do better at this basic principle: responsibility as a human being. Until Katrina’s survivors are taken care of, back on their feet again with as much as possible (not such subjective adjectives as “reasonable,” but “possible”), every single one of us is failing to live up to his/her responsibility as a person. Every single one of us. Which is to say, if you believe that your responsibility ha been fulfilled, you are disgracing yourself and the rest of America.

The greatness of a country is determined by the greatness of its people. The greatness of a people is determined by the greatness of their actions. And, from my viewpoint, the greatest of all actions are those of compassion. Where is our compassion? Have we run through it so quickly? If so, what on Earth is the matter with us? Is this all there is to our humanity? We should be ashamed of ourselves.

This, many will say, is “bleeding heart” talk. And I suppose it is. And I’m not ashamed of it. My heart bleeds because, after witnessing the callousness of my fellows and knowing how guilty I am of being a part of that cold and compassionless detachment, it is broken.

I don’t know that I ever personally imagined that I would evoke a Biblical quote in my writing: it’s not my style, personally or creatively. But I can think of no better way to bring this piece of opinion to a close, because it speaks specifically of our responsibility to our fellow man. It speaks to what is expected of us as people (even if we don’t believe in the Bible or any other religious text):

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?” “Yes, Master,” was his answer; “you know that you are dear to me.” “Then feed my lambs,” replied Jesus.

God help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. And then God help us, their fellow Americans, out of our inability to live up to any basic standard of human compassion and decency.

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About Michael J. West

  • chantal stone

    you’re absolutely right, Michael. we never hear the Katrina stories anymore, they seem to have run their course through the news cycles. when the fact remains, there are still families separated, still people with no homes, people in need of jobs and health care.

    our attention span, as Americans, is about as long as it takes for the next big story to hit, then we seem to forget what we felt so passionately about yesterday.

    thank-you, Michael, for bringing this back to our attention.

  • JP

    Thank you for writing this. Great summation of a lot of my feeelings on the subject.