Katrina: Gratifying and Disturbing Reactions

September 6, 2005

In the immediate aftermath of Katrina’s wrath, two almost contradictory reactions have emerged. One is the reaction of most American people and is overwhelmingly positive and constructive. The other — that of the media and certain politicians — is negative and destructive.

We are witnessing in the American people, who are united in a spirit of beneficence, sacrifice and selflessness, a magnificent outpouring of goodwill, untainted and undistracted by issues of blame or self-flagellation.

This is the best of the best of the human condition. We saw it post 9-11 in the heartfelt sympathy flowing from all Americans toward the victims of the terrorist attacks and the philanthropic action taken to ameliorate and repair the damage and loss.

In response to 9-11 and now Katrina, we haven’t just seen empty rhetoric, but hard-core action from individuals, corporations and churches throughout the land. In my own little hometown in Missouri, as well as scores of surrounding communities, hundreds, perhaps thousands of volunteers are coming out of the woodwork and vaulting into action. They are opening up their wallets and homes to the victims — people they’ve never heard of or met — and dedicating their valuable time to the relief effort.

People are engaged in these activities not for the credit or praise they might bring to themselves, but simply because they are motivated to help fellow human beings in need. These are not isolated incidents by the usual good Samaritans, but part of a widespread pattern of genuine altruism.

In this we are seeing the greatness and goodness of the American people, born of an independent, can-do spirit that requires neither prompting by government nor chiding by lecturing onlookers.

Sadly, we have seen another, far less admirable pattern on display following these national tragedies and losses, mostly generated by the media and politicians, if recent polls are any indication. Everyday American people and institutions are busy donating funds and getting their hands dirty to help the needy. Meanwhile, the chattering classes and political demagogues, at their repugnant worst, are pointing their arrogant fingers at others and pounding their puffed up chests, demanding investigations.

Among other things, this is transferred hostility of epic proportions. The Bush-haters, for example, couldn’t wait to add his administration’s alleged inadequate disaster response to their laundry list of reasons to despise him.

Someone needs to answer those allegations in due course, and there needs to be accountability wherever fault lies, if for no other reason than to try to correct whatever problems or weaknesses might have contributed to governmental failures.

But this doesn’t mean we should rush to judgment and condemn people and institutions before all the facts are in, especially when our constructive energies, for now, ought to be directed elsewhere.

I think part of the reason we see such finger-pointing is that some of us live in a distorted reality born of a stunning hubris. It teaches that human beings and especially Americans are virtually immune from harm — from human or natural enemies — if we just take the appropriate precautionary measures or avoid missteps that lead to disasters.

We saw similar finger-pointing after 9-11; we see it every time an American soldier tragically dies in Iraq. It can’t just be that murderous terrorists attacked us without provocation or warning. The fault has to lie with failures of our intelligence agencies — as if they are capable of perfection and preventing all attacks.

When our soldiers die in Iraq, it can’t just be that murderous, shadow-lurking terrorists are bound to succeed on occasion. It must be that we are failing altogether in our mission, because the presumption is that unless we have an unblemished record, someone is radically at fault.

This same hubris causes some to underestimate nature and overestimate our ability to affect its awesome forces — whether it is our disbelief at being unable to tame the destructive powers of hurricanes or the ludicrous attribution of such disasters to man-made global warming.

As great as we Americans are, we are just human beings — wonderful as human beings go, but far from perfect. We are vulnerable to the same harms as all other human beings, and not everything that befalls us is our fault.

Maybe heads need to roll on this thing in the fullness of time; those at whatever level of government whose action or inaction may have led to suffering or death must be accountable. But for now, we mustn’t allow the armchair demands for perfection by the whining classes to obscure our glimpse of the human kindness on display in response to this disaster and the heroic rescue efforts now underway.