The coincidence of timing between Hurricane Katrina and the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has been irresistible to some commentators, particularly the president’s critics. The storyline is that George Bush handled the first crisis well, but in Katrina he met his match. The years of planning, of organizing, of preparing for large-scale emergencies of this type have resulted in a major city under water, its population displaced, and hundreds or perhaps thousands dead. The kindest critics only allege negligence; the harshest charge complicity.
Of course, the parallels between 9/11 and Katrina are at best inexact. Hurricanes are more frequent than terrorist attacks. They are more predictable. And they are often more devastating. Katrina is a case in point–the number of deaths may go well beyond those incurred on 9/11. But that will not in itself make the hurricane a more significant event. One cannot gauge the magnitude of events simply from body counts. Aspirin abuse accounted for about twice the number of American deaths in 2001 than the September 11 attacks, but who noticed?
The central difference between the two events is that Katrina killed many but murdered none. Though we give hurricanes human names, they lack consciousness and volition. They are natural phenomena, acts of God. They are no one’s fault. The 9/11 attacks, on the other hand, were voluntary and intentional actions carried out by 19 hijackers under the direction of Osama bin Laden, who came to personify the evil behind the acts. If you wanted someone to blame, he was your man, and for good reason. He admitted it.
Nevertheless, even with 9/11 there were attempts to try to spread the blame around. This type of scapegoating is an inescapable fact of political life, and is surely nothing new. On December 7, 1945, the four-year anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, a joint congressional committee was holding hearings trying to determine who was at fault. By then, the A-bombs had been dropped, Japan had surrendered, and the war was over. The entirety of the human drama of the Second World War had been played out, with all its triumphs and tragedies. Congress could have been scrutinizing many other things, if it felt the need to. But there had only been eight major investigations of Pearl Harbor, so one more couldn’t hurt.
The Katrina Commission is surely in our future, but in the meantime the storm has become the ultimate opportunity for transference. There is no analog to Osama bin Laden, so the president’s critics are fixing the facts around their story line that apportions him most of the blame. They loosed a hurricane of unfocused rage, which has been exceptional even in these partisan times. The public debate over the response to Hurricane Katrina has shown an appalling and disturbing lack of common purpose and of civility. There is always a place for legitimate criticism of government actions; in the fullness of time, when the facts have been gathered, conducting a sober and constructive review seeking less to place blame than to provide lessons for the future. Instead, we have seen something wholly counterproductive, an outpouring of virulence, vindictiveness, even hatred.
Katrina has become for the critics what 9/11 could not be, what they wanted Iraq to be, the vessel into which they have poured all their frustrations for a broad assault on the president. The disaster has not only been used as a means of criticizing FEMA and the department of Homeland Security–which at least were involved in the crisis–but has also been used to indict the Bush administration’s views on the environment, taxes, stem-cell research, health care, race, military recruitment, the Supreme Court, labor outsourcing, and AIDS in Africa. To their ultimate shame, the Democrats have evenexploited the disaster for partisan fundraising. Ironically, the people who have most feared that President Bush is seeking to be a dictator are now complaining that he did not act enough like one.
The 9/11 attacks became a great unifying event. Americans pulled together for a common purpose, and in the years since have done remarkable things. The response to Hurricane Katrina could have been an opportunity for another show of national unity, but instead has descended into a sad and shameful spectacle, a maelstrom of malice.
Yet, while the political storms have been blowing, tens of thousands of volunteers, workers from relief organizations, doctors, the military, and government employees at every level have been striving tirelessly and selflessly to provide comfort for the evacuees and other survivors of the storm. This spirit of unity and vitality is what makes our country great. On Sunday when we memorialize the thousands who died so tragically four years ago, let us try to remember what we had then and can have again before the wind blows it all away.