In the wake of the disaster in New Orleans, you hear a lot of talk about how the government has failed. Yes, the Department of Homeland Security appears to be broken. Yes, government aid, like all government services, has proven to be inefficient and unprepared. What else is new? Anyone who's ever spent eight hours at the DMV can tell you that.
But what you don't hear much talk of is an even sadder truth Katrina has exposed. To put it simply, many of the deaths in the Big Easy can be blamed not just on the government but on a break down in community, a failure of basic social networks, and a loss of humanity.
This is probably an unpopular notion. We've grown so used to thinking that the government exists to help the most helpless that we rarely stop to think about how it is people become so helpless in the first place. By saying that a lack of community and social networking is also part of the problem here, I may sound like I'm blaming the victims, but that’s not my intention. For in this part of the problem we are all both perpetrators and victims.
If there is any truth to Kanye West's accusation that "George Bush doesn't care about black people," then you'd also have to give some credence to the simple truth that people don't care about people. Yes, we're all giving money to the Red Cross. Yes, we're all wringing our hands over the images of devastation on our TVs, but how was it that thousands of people were left in this position in the first place? I might also ask how it was that, once the skies cleared, these thousands of people failed to come together in any meaningful way to help one another, but then I'd have to ask that scariest of scary questions--would I have done any better? I doubt it.
That's not to say that there aren't plenty of stories of good samartanism emerging from this tragedy. But it's sad that we treat each such act as the shining exception rather than the rule--that we see the guy giving gas to a stranded family of four as an exemplar of sainthood rather than just a human being meeting his obligation as a human being.
And the truth is that we're often good at coming together after the fan is already coated with shit. It's the before part that's a bit harder. Unfortunately, it's also the before part that can make the biggest difference--as it might have in New Orleans. Let's face it, those who could make it out of harm’s way, did so, either through their own means or through the help of their social or family network. Those who didn't lacked their own means and lacked a social network to provide that means, or simply couldn't leave because they couldn't (and some still can't) trust their neighbors not to plunder their vacated homes. For them each roadblock on the road out of New Orleans was built from the shards of humanity. To me that's much more tragic than the bureaucratic mess that kept FEMA from mounting a sufficient response for the first 18 to 24 hours.
I swear I'm not trying to sound like a libertarian when I say this. I recognize that the government does have value and does have a responsibility to its citizens, I just want to refocus some of the anger here on a part of the problem where the only officials we can blame are ourselves. The government exists to help us protect and preserve our humanity, but it is a poor replacement for it. Any mandated community must fall victim to bureaucracy, but that doesn't mean that we must as well. After all, a community is made up of people, and, last time I checked, we are the people.
My intention here isn't to point fingers. I'd say I bear responsibility for these failures as much as anyone else. So what will I do in response Katrina? I doubt I'll write a letter to Congress, but I hope I will take the time to talk to my neighbors a bit more, I hope I will look harder for opportunities to help those neighbors in times of need.
It is sad that the Bureau of Homeland Security bungled so miserably its first opportunity to respond to a major disaster on U.S. soil. But, for me, the saddest part isn't that the government failed. That happens every day in matters big and small. The sadder part is that so many people were left in a position where their only hope was the government. What's even sadder is that this will still be the case for many in this country long after all the water has drained from New Orleans.
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