There is absolutely nothing in my political or social memory that fills me with more shame for my country than the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.
Not Monica-gate or Iran-Contra; not Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo; not Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua or Guatemala; not Waco or the USS Vincennes; not Dan Quayle, Jerry Falwell or Michael Moore; not Rodney King or the L.A. riots; not the Chinese embassy in Belgrade or indifference to Rwanda—nothing brings the hot red flush of shame to my face more than watching the poor, bedraggled citizens of New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta Gulf coast left to rot thanks to the combined failures of local, state and federal authorities.
Watching this mixture of incompetence and utter indifference—a “perfect storm” of man’s devising—is like taking a long, dark look into our nation’s soul. Is it true? Are we still a country where the value of a life is determined by race and class? Are our communities really so weak that its most vulnerable members are left to fend for themselves—or worse—when disaster strikes? Are our leaders really such incompetent navel-gazers that they can congratulate themselves on a job well-done while people die in the streets because of their callous indifference? Could it be possible that we’ve learned nothing from our failures; from the blood, sweat and tears of centuries? I shudder to think.
In the wake of this tragedy, it has become uncomfortably clear how much of the last several decades has been devoted to spreading a thin veneer over our country’s cracks and blemishes. But nothing is fixed—all you have to do is turn on the TV to see that. American politicians are devoted to the appearance of progress, but American citizens cannot subsist on the appearance of justice, safety and security. What we gained from the upheavals of the 60s and 70s, apparently, is not a more profound sense of national identity and community, but a more finely tuned ability to ignore, avoid and deny reality.
For years now, the media have been partners in selling Washington’s fantasy of the prosperous, secure, color-blind society. But in the aftermath of Katrina, when even FOX News’ Shepard Smith is taking pot shots at the federal response to this storm, that partnership appears to be off.
For the first time in as long as I can remember, reporters are actually asking vital questions. How could the government fail its citizens so profoundly in such a basic responsibility? How can we even pretend to be prepared for a terror attack when we’re incapable of protecting citizens from a foreseeable event for which there was advanced warning? Would the response have been the same if this happened in Beverly Hills? How can Washington justify playing politics with people’s lives?
This disaster goes beyond the culpability of the Bush administration, although it is great, and strikes directly at the trust citizens have in their society. This is a breach of trust that, unlike the levees of New Orleans, cannot be patched with sandbags—this breech may never be repaired.