Location: United States

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Speaking the Unspeakable

Since Hurricane Katrina turned a near-miss of New Orleans into a backdoor sucker punch, I have been shocked to watch America turn into a Third World country. The type of devastation shown nearly continuously by cable TV would be somewhat expected in Sri Lanka, perhaps, or Bangaladesh. Seeing it in Louisianna, though, is sometimes too much to bear.

Of course, I'm fortunate. I can turn off the TV and escape. I don't have to smell the foul odors, sit in the oppressive heat, listen to the cries of despair and anger. No, I can go about my business as if it really were Sri Lanka or Bangaladesh.

That's the problem.

America is incredibly generous. Billions of dollars and pints of blood were donated in the aftermath of 9/11. The same is true for the aftermath of the tsunami that struck the Pacific islands last year. I'm sure the outpouring for this disaster will be even larger than for those two events.

There are two aspects to the problem, though. One is that I'm somehow content sitting here comfortably while Sri Lankans (and I have no idea why I'm picking on them other than I remember hearing about typhoons causing widespread destruction there) struggle and starve and die horrible deaths. The other is that I want to turn away from the Gulf Coast as if it were as distant, as mysterious, as divorced from the reality of my life as the nameless dead of Sri Lanka.

Why is it that American deaths matter more than Sri Lankans? I have no more direct connection to the citizens of New Orleans than I do to that Pacific nation. There is a language barrier, but human suffering needs no interpretation. There is a cultural barrier, but death is a cultural constant and it is mourned throughout the world when it comes in large numbers. There is only one connection to New Orleans that I lack to Sri Lanka - that a government operating in my name, supposedly by my consent, is responsible for reacting to New Orleans. Reactions to Sri Lanka are wonderful gestures, but those people do not vote in my elections and my government is no reflection of their humanity.

That is why I want to turn off the TV and leave New Orleans to the "professionals". I want New Orleans to be far away so that my connection to it does not pull me into the disaster. I want to avoid the pain - that's natural. I want to ignore the need - that's natural, too. But more than anything, I want - I NEED - to pretend that there was nothing my government could have done in my name with my tax dollars to spare the suffering. I need to believe that my government is doing everything possible to protect its citizens and to provide for the "general welfare" in the simplest of terms.

President Bush and the Republican Party did not start Hurricane Katrina and they could not possibly control where it struck. There is, however, a glaring set of evidence that demands honesty and accountability. I was pleased to hear that Mayor Bloomberg in NYC has ordered all city departments to plan for mandatory door-by-door evacuations and flooding for the potential of such a storm hitting the Manhattan area. I would be even more pleased to hear a single politician stand up and say, "We failed. It is our job to keep our citizens alive and the failure is plainly before us. We put budgets and dollars ahead of lives; patronage ahead of public safety and welfare; tax cuts and abatements ahead of building codes and common sense. We have failed - as leaders, as human beings, and collectively as a society. We cannot change this failure, but we must acknowledge it. We must face it squarely and let the full weight of responsibility rest on our shoulders. Then, we must live up to the mantle we have been entrusted and pull our people together to rebuild shattered lives, battered bodies, and devastated communities."

I'd like to hear one person honestly say, "God is merciful for sparing so many - and we ask for continued mercy from God and from our countrymen."

This is the second time in George W. Bush's Presidency that he faces a catastrophe that could truly unite the nation.

I need him to be successful. I pray for his success. However I am able, I will work for his success - and accept my part of the responsibility.


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