Monday, August 28, 2006

Reflecting on Katrina

This week will probably play host to a number of Katrina retrospectives. One particular documentary, Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke, has already started stirring the pot of controversy. While much of the press coverage on the film has been even-handed, there have been so rumbling reservations about once again asking who is to blame for the bungled efforts to protect and help the people of New Orleans and southern Mississippi. Especially galling to some have been the widespread accusations of racism and even conspiracy in the failings of the levees and their destructive aftermath.

The problem on both fringes of the political spectrum is that problems in society are too often wrapped into these wide conspiracy theories. While some on the left imagine a dark government conspiracy behind 9/11, some Christians on the right see themselves as oppressed people, a people who will be plucked out of this world with the return of Jesus. The rhetoric on both sides maddeningly refuses to look at the very real problems which exist in our society.

I think Katrina exposed such a sad reality. Whether black or white, if you are poor, old, or disabled, your voice will only rarely be heard. If you can't help yourself escape death, many, if not most, of your neighbors will not help you. To me, it is a national tragedy that so much time elapsed between the hurricane and help arriving in the area. Was it a conspiracy? No. Was it racist? Perhaps, in that our political and economic systems have not been succesful in creating equal opportunity for all.

Unfortunate also is that all the conspiracy talk keeps us from seeing a rather obvious point. People who reject the notion that the government blew up the levees, it seems to me, believe so because they cannot imagine that our government would do such a thing, that our government as our representatives would not commit crimes against our own people. Unfortunately, levees were apparently blown up in 1927 and there have been other instances in which your race or ethnicity could put you at the end of dehumanizing treatment by the government.

Unfortunately, we miss a crucial question. Is our government still capable of such criminal action? Actually, there is a far better question to ask: do we think that we ourselves are not capable of such criminal neglect? That is the question we should be asking now, not who conspired to make for the worst natural disaster this nation has seen. The truth is that we all conspire when we let our neighbors suffer.