America has been wounded.
Following 9/11, the nation was stunned. Following Katrina, we feel much the same. With the four year anniversary of 9/11 a week away and as bodies are pulled from the wreckage of a city, the comparison seems inescapable. Yet there are difference which we might keep in mind.
But first the similarities. Shock. Dismay. Anger. Even denial. These are the same emotions people are said to experience in confronting a terminal illness. The images. Injured people looking for loved ones. Signs. Pictures. People too numb to cry. The nation in mourning. People at large grieving for those who were hurt and killed and whose hearts go out to the families who lost loved ones.
The scale of the damage is where the comparisons break down. New York was hit hard. Many died, but much of the city continued to function. They were stretched, but public services were available - electricity, water, food, communications, and medicine. Hospitals functioned. People had homes to go to. Parts of the city were cordoned off, but the city was habitable.
Washington DC was also hit. In neither case did the metro area require massive evacuation. Some people in New York and Washington ended up walking home when public transportation was shut down, but in days the survivors were back at work.
Not New Orleans. Not from what we hear. And not just New Orleans - the Gulf. In 9/11 two sets of buildings, emblematic of America, were the targets. During 9/11 loss of life was confined to the buildings that were attacked and to the immediate vicinity.
Katrina pummeled everything in its path. The scale of the devastation is massive and widespread. Katrina engulfed an entire region.
The World Trade Center, WTC, was a symbol of financial power. Although emotionally shaken, financial markets moved on smoothly. The Pentagon, a symbol of American military power, was also hit, yet America's military was not brought to its knees.
But Katrina is different. Oil pipelines have been disrupted, drilling has stopped off-shore, refineries are off-line or damaged, and a few oil storage tanks are leaking - or so we are told. Gasoline prices soar at the pump and oil futures rise - the per barrel price of oil topped a record $70. The government says it will be tapping the strategic reserves to keep gas prices in check, yet there are reports of gasoline prices in places rising to four dollars or even over five dollars per gallon. Nothing like this happened after 9/11.
The Okies of the 1930's left the dust bowl and now the New Orleanians, the "Nokies," are likewise displaced. If we are to believe the broadcasted interviews with survivors who have left New Orleans, many are saying they won't go back. Is it fear, anger, shock - a place of bad memories - no one really knows how many will not return, but if they do not, the exodus will change the demographics of the United States - to what extend and to what effect, who knows?
The Corp of Engineers just yesterday said the city would remain under water for another month, maybe up to 80 more days. People all along the Gulf are returning to rubble. One war veteran was quoted in the media as saying that parts of the Gulf looked like they had been carpet bombed.
Allowing for the difference in populations, New York and Washington experienced nothing like the dislocation in the Gulf or the disruption to the economy.
After 9/11, people were frightened and angry. Americans were told the enemy was terrorism and soon our troops moved against Afghanistan and then into Iraq. Yesterday as US troops rolled into New Orleans, Louisiana's governor promised that they would fire on citizens if provoked. Americans leaders promised that when the Americans rolled into Baghdad that the troops would be cheered. The same was promised yesterday about New Orleans. In both cases the receptions were mixed.
People died in New Orleans in the aftermath - some from thirst. Americans wonder why so little is done about getting relief to the survivors. Why all the rhetoric about zero tolerance for looting - someone who might help themselves to bottles of water at what once had been a store. Zero tolerance means that there are no exceptional circumstances or excuses allowed. In reality, those on the ground would probably not shoot someone for getting drinking water, but it does show how completely out of touch officials are about the reality of the situation.
One of the top people at FEMA, the agency charged with handling the crisis, was interviewed on national television. He claimed he was unaware that thousands of refugees had gathered at the Saint's Stadium in New Orleans. The reporter was aghast. How could he not know? His answer, he was too busy managing the situation and saving lives.
Americans watch the disconnect between what is happening to people in the Gulf and what the government is doing to help the victims. The message coming out of Washington is that oil will be managed and looters will be shot. Yet as one wag put it,"what separates a law abiding citizen from a criminal is three meals."
In the end, probably very few, if any, people will be shot over taking a bottle of water without paying for it, but what will be remembered is the strident rhetoric about those who fly over a city in their private jets as people raise their arms skyward and plead for help - the basic necessities.
And it has not escaped the notice of Americans and of the world at large that those left behind have been the people of color, the impoverished, the old, the sick, the weak. This is the theme that seems to come out from the events over and over. No commentaries. The pictures say it all. There are no pundits or partisans, save for a few voices here and there. We are in too much shock to say much of anything. It is quite a sight to see bodies floating in a river; bodies in wheel chairs, left in the sun; bodies in a Stadium where refugees have congregated, but who are forgotten.
America's forgotten people.
We forgot about them in the evacuation in the face of Katrina. We forgot about them in the aftermath.
Maybe for the first time, we as American remember that maybe we forgot about these people long ago.
Perhaps looking at their faces, we will remember who they are and what America is all about.