All That We Are

A recent Associated Press photo taken after Hurricane Katrina shows a fleet of school buses parked in a flooded lot.&nbsp  It says a great deal, both in what some of us see and what some of us refuse to see.

I had been working on a piece about Hurricane Katrina and the notion of who is to blame for more than a week. I’ve been reading different blogs…on AOL, Blogger, LiveJournal, Xanga, and other blog hosting services. I’ve read a mountain of news articles linked in those blogs. And, working in television, I have the advantage of seeing multiple stories that the rest of you might have missed.

I would read someone’s attack on someone, and I’d make note of it.

There are those who are still harping on Cindy Sheehan, whom they refer to as a “hero” because she had the “courage” to speak out against the president. They demand that others show the same “courage” and, at the same time, fail to realize that they are using intimidation tactics that they’d call propaganda in a heartbeat if it was used on them. And of those I’ve read who heap praise on Cindy Sheehan, not one of them — not one — has called Herbert Shughart a hero. He had the “courage” to speak out about his son’s death in a war he didn’t agree with to a president he didn’t feel was fit for the job. Sheehan is a hero, Shughart is someone conveniently forgotten.

They embrace people like Kanye West, because he was “bold” and “spoke the truth.” It doesn’t matter to them that people who would have given money to support the effort he was supposed to be helping were turned away because of his remarks. All that matters is that he slammed Bush. If it cost money that would have gone to relief efforts for the very people he was speaking out about, well, that’s a small price to pay for such a nice jab. It doesn’t matter that he could have waited until the next day, or even until after the concert was over, when they’d raised the money they were there to raise, to get people riled up enough that they closed their pocketbooks. What’s important — the only thing that is important, apparently — is that he spoke out, period.

There are some entries that insist on blaming one single person, President Bush, for everything that has happened.

Some base this entire line of reasoning on the fact that Bush was on vacation when the storm hit. They ignore numerous facts to get to this conclusion. Here’s one: Bush declared a state of emergency two days before the storm hit. Here’s another: Bush called Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and pleaded for a mandatory evacuation before one was issued. How do we know this? Easy. Blanco, a Democrat, said so at the press conference on Sunday, the day before the storm made landfall. Bush called for a mandatory evacuation before there was one, and did so while he was on vacation.

But it’s still Bush’s fault, and Bush’s fault alone, right?

Then there was the battle for power behind the scenes, (link may have expired) a story that no one wants to acknowledge happened, and one that no one wants to imagine could have happened: Bush could have taken control at the federal level of Louisiana’s National Guard. Rather than simply doing so, he consulted with Louisiana officials who rejected the idea. Why? The primary reason wasn’t that she thought her state’s authorities could do better, according to a source within the state’s own emergency operations center. MSNBC reported:

“The [Bush] administration had sought control over National Guard units, normally under control of the governor. Louisiana officials rejected the request, noting that such a move would be comparable to a federal declaration of martial law. State authorities suspected a political motive behind the request. ‘Quite frankly, if they’d been able to pull off taking it away from the locals, they then could have blamed everything on the locals,’ said the source, who is an adviser and does not have the authority to speak publicly.”

And while this power struggle was going on, people were dying. Should Bush have taken control immediately at that point? Damn right! It is his fault if he didn’t take control from a state whose leadership was more worried about getting blamed than helping their own citizens. And if, even for a moment, it was actually true that the fear of being blamed took precedence over the life of a single citizen, those state officials don’t deserve their jobs. I don’t know how anyone could possibly defend leaders who put the fear of being blamed ahead of the lives of their constituency.

Now, that picture. There are at least 200 buses shown in that image. I think the actual total comes to just under 210, but I might have counted one or two twice. Remember that 18-year-old who took a bus, loaded it with 100 people and drove them to safety? Those 200 buses, packed with 100 people each, could have gotten 20,000 to safety. But they sit in a parking lot — a flooded parking lot — in New Orleans.

Forget that FEMA conducted a big experiment they called Hurricane Pam in 2004, which predicted the impact ofa major hurricane hitting New Orleans. Forget that the damage estimates are strikingly similar to what happened because of Katrina. Put out of your mind the notion that state and local authorities saw in this exercise that roughly 20% of New Orleans’s citizens would be unable to evacuate. And for heaven’s sake, please don’t bother to consider the fact that New Orleans’s own disaster plan states:

“Special arrangements will be made to evacuate persons unable to transport themselves or who require specific life saving assistance.”

Two hundred buses sit in a flooded parking lot. That picture should make you as mad as hell. At least twenty-thousand were stranded at the convention center for days with no food or water. Do the math. (And that’s assuming that the each of the buses made one single trip: they could have made more than one trip before the storm hit if the operation had begun soon enough.)

Who would know better — who could possibly know better — how many people in their own city or state would be unable toget themselves out? Somebody could have taken those buses and gone to those poorest neighborhoods and loaded people up.

Forty years ago, Hurricane Betty woke people up to the dangers ofa hurricane in a city so prone to flooding. For forty years, New Orleans had time to designate drivers and a method of comandeering those vehicles that would leave no question about what needed to be done. But the buses sit in that flooded parking lot.

And it’s still Bush’s fault, and Bush’s fault alone, right?

Some of those who insist that Bush is the only one to blame want people to explain to them how anyone could be so blindly in support of Bush that they would think he isn’t to blame. “Explain it to me,” someone said the other day over at Blogger, I think it was. (There have been so many.)

What is so telling is that they do not ask anyone to explain how someone could be so blindly opposed to Bush that they won’t look anywhere but him when they look for someone to blame, no matter what happens.

All some people seem to want is to have people agree with them on their political bias. That’s all. If you do agree, they think you’re “courageous.” If you argue, they’re waiting with more talking points to make their case, no matter what you have to say. You’ll never convince them that they’re not even trying to see the big picture. And for some of them, anyone who disputes their position is automatically regarded as making a personal attack, no matter how well-intentioned or rational their counter-argument might be. I’ve played this game before with different people in different locations in the Blogosphere.

I’m tired of playing it.

I could go on and on with examples and counter examples showing weaknesses on all levels. And in all candor, my friends, before a conversation last night, I would have.

But then I talked with a friend of mine named Eric. He happens to agree with me that not only does finger pointing accomplish nothing in terms of helping people who are still stranded, but that it’s ridiculous to think that one person could be responsible for such a massive failure.

Then, he said something extraordinarily profound…so profound that I wish I’d have come up with it first:

“This is a chance for us to really see who we are.”

And so it is.

Some of us do see who we are. Some of us are quite alarmed at what we as a nation have become: a group of petty screamers who don’t give a damn about anyone else or anything else except winning a political argument. It isn’t about who died, or even how many died. It’s about making our candidate or candidates look good. It’s about making sure our political agenda comes out smelling like roses while our opponent’s agenda is dragged through the flood waters. It’s not about a logical argument or even considering both sides of a coin. It’s about a witty comeback.

Witty comebacks don’t solve problems. And they certainly don’t prevent the same thing from happening again.

Eric, who happens to be black, also points out that comments like West’s and the photo captions to which West referred, (captions that portray black looters as “looters” and white looters as “finders”) merely point out that all of those terrible prejudices we keep telling ourselves we’ve managed to eliminate are just as strong as ever. Neither of us deny that West has valid points in some of what he said; we agree that the way to help those people who needed relief wasn’t to bring up those points right that minute. Think we’ve made progress in race relations? Think we’re a kinder, gentler nation? You’re living in a dream world.

Would that reality were that pleasant.

You want someone to blame? You wonder how we could have government agencies so bogged down in red tape (so they won’t get accused of wasting a single tax dollar) that they end up almost unworkable and unable to do what they were designed to do? You want to know how we reached a point at which state and federal authorities argue over who should be in charge of a disaster response because they are worried about who’ll end up in the doghouse?

You want to know who is to blame for making our governments — local, state and federal — so preoccupied with looking good that they’re practically paralyzed…while our fellow Americans, old and young, rich and poor, black and white are dying in the streets of an American city?

Go look in the mirror.

That’s where it starts. That’s where it ends. And yes, I include myself in that statement.

“This is a chance for us to really see who we are.”

Do you like the view?

Keep arguing over who you want to blame, and if it somehow makes you feel good to blame just one single person, when it’s perfectly clear to others of us that there were massive failures at every single level, go for it. If you consider it a sport, go have fun. Enjoy yourself.

I’ve had enough.

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.