I've had a lot to do the last few weeks, so I've been working a lot. This weekend, I took stuff home, and have spent a good amount of my weekend working on different projects and keeping an eye on the TV. I hadn't really been tuned in to the news or the internet and I don't get a daily paper, so I didn't really understand how bad Katrina was until Saturday AM when I decided to watch CNN.
As you all know, it's impossible to put words to how horrible the scene is. Not even going to try. It looks like New Orleans is one of the closest things to hell on earth that's happened in my lifetime. Watching the suffering and dying on national TV was overwhelming. I think I cried for about two hours. I know I saw old people and children from footage earlier in the week who are now sitting in a makeshift morgue somewhere. How can this happen?
I finally couldn't watch it and weep anymore. I had to start intellectualizing it...distance myself from it so I could start to process it. So instead I decided to do a little comparative study of the news coverage...analyze the way they covered the story instead of focusing on the story itself.
First thing I noticed is that the US media had found their spine. I saw Anderson Cooper, Mr. Nice, jump all over Sen Mary Landreau when she started playing politics. I saw Solidad O'Brien express exasperation and contempt in her interview with the head of FEMA. I saw media personnel illustrating the inherent racism of the situation by showing how blacks carrying bread and water from Walmart were labeled as looters and the whites doing the same thing were finding food for their survival. I saw talking heads who weren't wearing makeup or having their hair done, they were crying on camera and begging viewers to help.
Most notably, they were actually criticizing the Bush Administration, and they weren't backing down when they were offered spin and platitudes. Haven't seen that since August 2001. Heck, even FoxNews wasn't giving them a pass on this one. (Okay, the Heads were, but the anchors were showing a sense of reason.)
So then I decided to take advantage of my location abroad to see how the rest of the world was viewing this tragedy.
They have compassion. They have reporters on the ground in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well, keeping everyone posted on developments. There are 100 some missing Britons right now. They are just as emotionally connected as we are to this tragedy, and their hearts bleed for us. It's nice to know.
But now the part that's a bit more thought-provoking.
They want to know why our government wasn't ready for this, when weather radar showed the strength of the storm and everyone knew that New Orleans couldn't withstand a storm of that magnitude.
They, too, ask why it took so long to respond. Here we are, the richest nation in the world, and we leave thousands to fend for themselves in untenable positions while we figure out how what to do. They point out that international aid arrived for Tsunami victims over a holiday weekend faster than Washington started getting aid to their own.
And they want to know why we are refusing offers of aid from nations like Cuba and Venezuela...why are we putting ideological issues ahead of the lives that might be saved by willing doctors who can be on the ground in the airport triage hospital in a matter of hours? Why on earth does it matter that they're coming from Castro?
They want to know why we feel its more important to send troops to Iraq than it is to one of our own 50 states.
On the chat shows, one guy pointed out the economic and racial divide illustrated by this, and questions how the US is going to address this. Another asked how the government's reaction would have been different if this had happened in Florida, land of election-swaying electoral votes (and Republican strong-hold lead by Jeb.) They cited similar billion dollar plans for the Everglades and New Orleans to address sinking land and rising sea levels...and mentioned that, while New Orleans has been asking for help for years, only the Everglades plan has moved forward. They think this smacks of preferential treatment, and wonder if priority should have been given to a major city.
Another pointed blame solidly at a President who prioritized tax cuts and demonized big government at the expense of people who need its support. And he was not talking about Bush Jr...but Ronald Reagan. His theory is that the Reagan administration set the US on a path to undermine the government's ability to intervene in the lives of its citizens, and established priorities based upon individual success rather than maintaining a public good. After three more presidents who adhered to this doctrine to varying degrees, it shouldn't be surprising that we can't actually mobilize to proactively resolve a disaster of this magnitude.
So by this afternoon I was ready to bond with my own people and I decided to try CNN again. In the 24+ hours since I started watching this story, the coverage has changed. I actually heard Hayley Barbour (Gov. of Mississippi) suggest that people stayed because they wanted to, so it's kind of their own fault they found themselves in this predicament. The economic cluelessness of this argument is beyond explanation, and I can't believe he got by with it. But he's the governor of an afflicted state...he must know what he's talking about.
We're backing down again from the hard questions. We're letting somber press conferences make us feel guilty that we're angry instead of weeping. We're letting ourselves be diverted by forceful arguments that now is not the time to point fingers. We should be spending our energy helping these people....how DARE we question the administration at a time like this? Do you want the terrorists to win?
Certainly, we owe it to the victims of this tragedy to help them. To spend the money to rebuild and to offer food, shelter, and emotional support until we're done. We need to figure out how to get the thousands transferred to other states back home when they can safely return, and we need to step up to the plate and embody the values we preach to the world.
But we also owe it to them not to brush this under the rug because it's hard to talk about how we could make a mistake this big. We need to take homeland security seriously, and prepare to fight the war at home, even if it's a war against nature and not Saddam. We need to stop parsing the roles of state/local vs. federal government to avoid blame, and realize that some cities and states need help fulfilling their obligations in extreme circumstances. We need to identify the causes and fix them. We need to stop pretending affirmative action isn't needed anymore...we need to pay a bit more tax to fund education and programs that can give people a let up in this world if they're not born into a good starting position.
And most importantly, we need to find people to lead us who really can.