As the anniversary of hurricane Katrina’s devastation passes over us, the pain and horror of the event returns. For most of us, it had receded into the background, muted to the point of non-existence by the pressures and concerns of daily life. But the images of the Gulf Coast a year later remind us that the horror has only receded from memory. For those in the Gulf Coast it is alive and present, like the echo of a scream.
We can hear stories of survival, see images of neighbor helping neighbor, and these inspire us and remind us of the indomitable power of caring and the resilient human spirit. But these moments of individual goodness and caring cannot mask the fact that the response — or lack thererof — to Katrina represents the greatest moral failure of our government that I have experienced in my lifetime.
A person can argue that unwarranted and unjust wars represent even greater moral failures. But wars are issues of interpretation: someone, somewhere, believed that some higher good was being served by accomplishing the ends, however dubious, that those wars set out to achieve.
But there can be no claim of higher good in leaving our brothers and sisters living in squalor and hopelessness while we pursue a politics of self-absorption at home and reckless adventurism abroad. We as a nation have abdicated our moral responsibility to those suffering people, and we seem not to notice or to care.
We as individuals can lose ourselves in concern over whether the Dallas Cowboys will have a good season, whether a mental case did or did not kill JonBenet Ramsey, whether the South Beach Diet really will really allow us to lose 40 pounds while eating whatever we want. We can mow our lawns, discuss the current limitations on what we can carry on international flights, and take our kids to and from their baseball and soccer games. And, yes, we can help out our aging parents, try to keep our children safe and hopeful, and serve meals at the local church or homeless shelter. Such are the immediate and all-too-human concerns of contemporary life.
But, as a nation, as a government, we cannot operate in such a fashion. The goverment, at minimum, is supposed to take care of those aspects of life that we, as individuals, cannot do alone. We cannot run a fire department; we cannot operate a library; we cannot build roads, we cannot fund schools. These are the responsibilities of that collective entity we call “government,” whether local, state, or national. It exists to do the will of the people in areas where the people cannot exercise that will alone.
But something has happened, and Katrina has revealed it. Our government has lost its heart. It has become a rough beast, plowing through the underbrush of history, blind to consequences and intent only upon stopping our enemies and protecting our right to feed when and where we will. Contrast the images of Lebanon, a tiny and barely functional country, after the recent Israeli bombings, with the current images of New Orleans, a city in what is supposedly the richest and most caring country in the world. In Lebanon, we see bulldozers in the streets and the energy of reconstruction everywhere. In New Orleans we see piles of debris and people by the thousands living in FEMA trailers. Oh, yes, there were bulldozers there, and many are still involved in their lonely tasks. But we do not see or feel the energy of reconstruction.
Part of it is race, make no mistake. If that were San Francisco or Los Angeles or Boston there would be no folks living in trailers right now, at least in the affluent white areas. But part of it is a failure of governmental heart, pure and simple. We no longer believe that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We have become so smitten with the notions of self-reliance and self-determination that we have lost the willingness to sacrifice for those in situations of real need.
“Provide folks with the opportunity to help themselves, and the nation will thrive” is our current political mantra. Yet, we have no mantra, and no will to action, when folks do not have the capacity to help themselves.
There are people starving in Darfur; there are folks living in hovels in the aftermath of our debacle in Iraq, there are tsunami victims all across southeast Asia. We cannot help them all. But we can help the people who we claim as brother and sister Americans. In a nation that has started to thunder grand moralisms based on a strange and limited interpretation of Christianity, it is time to look to our true Christian heart, if that is what we believe we have. And to do so, we need to look no further than the Gospel of Matthew: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in.”
So many Americans as individuals responded to this call. But our government turned its attention to its endless fistfight in Iraq, marketing an unworkable and inhumane drug plan that frightens and confuses our elders, and bassooning about the moral correctness of various sexual and medical practices that should be none of its business.
Meanwhile, people in New Orleans, people in Bay Saint Louis, people all along the Gulf Coast, sit in waiting for someone, somewhere, to guide the hand that will pick up the pieces, wield the hammer, and offer the kindness and comfort that will get them back on their feet.
That hand must be in Washington. Is anybody listening?