The days of atonement
Karl Marx famously observed that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. That aphorism bubbled up from somewhere in my head this week, as the country marked the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. It’s likely that history will remember the defining event of this decade as the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. The destruction of the World Trade Center certainly had a near-incalculable impact on American foreign policy, the economy, civil liberties, and politics. It helped open the door to every disaster the Bush administration subsequently inflicted upon the country, from the PATRIOT Act to the embrace of torture as national policy to, most obviously, the Iraq War.
And yet I would argue that what Katrina did to New Orleans, not quite four years later—the farce of the government’s response following the tragedy of the hurricane, itself a nature-born echo of the manmade disaster that was 9/11--was not only far more devastating, but far more consequential to our age.
As I’ve written here before, I was less than a mile from the Twin Towers when they fell. I walked home that morning, with thousands of others, over the Brooklyn Bridge—but I had a home to walk back to. We weren’t able to get back into our office in Lower Manhattan for six days—but the office was still there when we finally could do so. The attack sent the NYC economy into a sharp, painful recession—but the city’s infrastructure didn’t suffer lasting damage, and the numbers show that few people left New York City in the aftermath. Physically, a very small piece of Manhattan was destroyed and the surrounding area was temporarily off-limits.
You just can’t compare that to what Katrina did to New Orleans. The death count—1,464 as of August 2006—was about half of the September 11 toll. But about 80 percent of the city suffered water damage, and approximately one million people fled the city and suburbs—only about two-thirds of whom have yet returned. The recovery continues, with a mix of good news and bad, though the process of reconstruction has been as ineffective and riddled with accusations of corruption as you’d expect from the guys who brought you Iraq: The Occupation and the crooks who are Louisiana’s entrenched political/business class.
But aside from periods like now, when the calendar reminds us, we haven’t really thought or talked that much about New Orleans since the disaster. Certainly the hoped-for national conversations my colleagues and I anticipated about the nature of poverty and the physical and social needs never have come to pass. We look away, nervous, a little ashamed, a little relieved that, after all, the blow fell somewhere else.
In the Jewish faith, the days between Rosh Hashanah, the start of the new year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are known as the Ten Days of Repentance, a period when Jews are supposed to reflect on their own behavior and recommit to goodness in their lives. Perhaps we as Americans should view the thirteen days between the anniversary of the New Orleans levee breaking, August 29, and September 11, in a similar light. The shame of 9/11 is primarily on the government, first for failing to recognize and prevent the attack but also for the remorseless manner in which the Bush administration connived, and Congress acquiesced, to drive the country into an even deeper abyss. While the government bears some blame for the devastation of Katrina as well—both the pro-development policies that led to the erosion of wetlands that might have cushioned the blow, and the fatal incompetence that compromised rescue efforts and has crippled rebuilding—I think this one falls upon all of us. Once the benefit concert was over and the news cycle had moved on, we more or less accepted the ongoing agony of a great American city.