Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Tragedy will test natural optimism of 'blessed nation'

A UK columnist's take on America's reaction to Katrina in Tragedy will test natural optimism of 'blessed nation'


Four years ago this week, the defining picture of September 11, 2001, was the flag: a hardy band of dishevelled firefighters hoisting the Stars and Stripes amid the debris of the World Trade Centre. It was staged, probably — either a conscious or unconscious evocation of the famous Second World War picture of marines raising Old Glory atop Iwo Jima in 1945. But its authenticity didn’t matter much. The vivid re-creation captured precisely the nation’s mood at that moment: resilient, defiant, united.

Last week’s defining image is strikingly different. It is of a black man, in ragged clothes, standing on top of an almost submerged New Orleans house, holding a sign that says: “Help Us”. Unlike September 11’s visuals, the image evokes helplessness, not resilience, despair, not defiance. It is a reproach, rather than an exhortation. His plight speaks of a nation’s shame rather than its pride. His race and evident poverty depict not a united America but an unequal and fractious one.

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The idea that Government was uninterested because poor blacks were the main victims is also off the mark. The main responsibility for evacuating the residents of New Orleans lay with the local city government, headed by a black mayor and a black police chief. The unflattering picture of American society ignores, too, the outpouring of compassion that has followed the disaster, vastly outweighing the selfishness and criminality — the many tales of New Orleanians who helped one another out of the hellhole, the millions of Americans opening their wallets and the many thousands opening their homes to evacuees.

And yet, like all caricatures, it surely captures a hint of the truth. Americans themselves have reacted with a national sense of shame to the images on display this week. There has been much grisly, partisan finger-pointing over the bodies of the dead. Republicans insist that it was the (Democrat-run) state and city governments to blame; Democrats say that it was all the Bush Administration’s fault.

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All this may be contributing to a profound disgust that the institutions of American society have failed the people.

Brooks says that the national mood may be like that of a century ago when, after a similar series of natural catastrophes and man-made disasters, the progressive era of interventionist government was born.

This may be overwrought; it is not yet clear whom Americans will blame for the disaster of Katrina. They may in the end, being phlegmatic folk, not even blame anyone.