Thoughts on Two American Traumas
Between 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, which do you think gets most attention, and why?
[An illustrated version is cross-posted at LeveesNotWar.org.]
[ 9/12 postscript: A few commenters below question whether the actual anniversary of 9/11 is the appropriate day to compare the two tragedies. It’s a fair question. Reply: Yes, appropriate indeed. 9/11, coming just 2 weeks after 5th anniversary of Katrina, seemed an especially apt occasion to observe that the two catastrophes (which I don’t attempt to equate) receive very different kinds of attention and are put to very different uses, and to suggest that one is more revealing about the long-term threats America faces. No disrespect intended; I tried to make that very clear. ]
What if the national focus on 9/11 is exaggerated and the nation should focus instead on 8/29—Hurricane Katrina—as the great catastrophe that signifies the greatest threat to America? The fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has received high-profile attention, marked by the release of feature films (Spike Lee, Harry Shearer), hour-long special reports (Brian Williams, Anderson Cooper), and a presidential address at Xavier University, so we’re not complaining that Katrina has been ignored.
My wife and I were in Manhattan on September 11, 2001, and saw men and women in dust- and debris-covered clothing walking the streets in a daze and crossing the 59th Street Bridge into Queens as from an apocalypse. We heard distraught eyewitnesses on pay phones talking about seeing the burning, falling bodies ("Look, Mommy, the birds are on fire"); we have heard first-person accounts from survivors who were just 20 feet away when their coworkers fleeing the burning towers were crushed beneath chunks of falling metal the size of garbage trucks. We’ve heard accounts from neighbors who were trapped on the E train near the World Trade Center while frantic escapees pounded on the doors to get in. The haunting stories, the anguish go on and on. Many others have experienced far worse than we can ever imagine. So, the following thoughts are by no means intended to diminish the trauma of September 11 or the necessity of dealing with al Qaeda and other extremist threats.
Anorexia of the Homeland: Making War While "Starving the Beast"
And yet I think maybe the challenges this nation faces are more accurately represented by the natural and bureaucratic/political disaster suffered on August 29, 2005, and in the following days, weeks, months, years. The United States is falling apart from a lack of funding of every kind of infrastructure—resulting from neglect, indifference, and a mean-spirited conservative agenda that seeks to roll back the progressive reforms of the 20th century. Our nation is in a downward spiral because of political unwillingness to protect the environment and our fellow citizens who are poor, jobless, homeless, in need of medical care and decent education. Our coasts and cities are vulnerable because of long-term environmental neglect and denial of the effects of industry—global warming, rising sea levels, intensified storms resulting from warming seas—and because corporate-captive politicians of both parties have put industrial and political interests ahead of what’s best for the planet, humanity, and other life forms. Even if 9/11 had never happened, all these conditions would still threaten our way of life—here and around the world.
• Don’t forget that in the years before Katrina, funds for reinforcing storm protection systems around New Orleans were cut off and redirected to the war effort in Iraq—the war launched on false pretenses. (Will Bunch wrote in 2005, "The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security—coming at the same time as federal tax cuts—was the reason for the [severe reduction in federal appropriations for flood control projects].")
• Don’t forget that FEMA’s resources were systematically whittled down and made impotent (despite the protests of former FEMA administrator Michael "Brownie" Brown) by an administration obsessed with fighting terrorism and building up a security apparatus (the Department of Homeland Security) that minimized the threats posed by natural disasters.
• Remember that about one-third to half the National Guard of Louisiana and Mississippi were stationed overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan when they were needed at home to rescue their fellow citizens.
• And let it be remembered that for days after the storm Defense Secretary Rumsfeld refused to deploy a fleet of search-and-rescue helicopters at Hurlburt Field Air Force Base in Florida—only 200 miles from New Orleans—who were waiting for go orders.
Driven in large part by politicians frightening the populace about Islamic extremists (talkin’ to the likes of you, Newt "Final Struggle" Gingrich), and motivated also by enormous arms profits, this nation is hell-bent on war. Our national resources are overwhelmingly diverted to the military, to some 150 or more overseas bases to maintain strategic control on every continent, while the Homeland is being hollowed out by deliberate underfunding (a form of anorexia nervosa).
September 11 remains a potent symbol, a wound that is never allowed to heal in order to keep the public frightened and subdued in order to justify massive, ever-increasing spending on wars and weapons systems and overseas bases and other military "needs." (At the same time, this summer only 12 out of 178 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted for funding for medical treatment for Ground Zero rescue workers and residents of New York City who suffered lung ailments and other illnesses from the toxic dust and debris.)
Hope over Fear: A More Affirmative Commemoration + Commitment
I propose that in order to make the nation stronger at home—after all, national security begins at home—America’s public officials, activists, volunteers, and ordinary citizens who pray and work for the common good should regard 8/29 as the event that calls us to say Never Again. By all means let’s remember what happened on September 11, and let us honor the courage and sacrifice of those who risked their lives to save others. Surely they have a special place in heaven. But at the same time, let the disaster of Katrina—the man-made disaster resulting from flawed engineering and cheap-ass construction and stingy congressional appropriations—let this be the event that motivates our work to repair and rebuild this self-crippled but still salvageable nation. As we’ve written before, if New Orleans is not safe then no place in America is safe. What’s happened to New Orleans is happening to the entire country. The Lower Ninth Ward is the national predicament carried to an extreme. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
9/11 is something foreign enemies did to the United States.
8/29 is what America did to itself, with a little help from nature.