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Crisis and Change

Ink has flowed like water. It’s hard to write about Katrina; so many others have. There has been so much coverage that it threatens a burn-out response in citizens whose lives have not been affected—beyond the gas pumps—by Katrina.

So it’s hard to write about Katrina and hope that what is written will be read when there is so much that is already so hard to read.

But it is harder still not to write about Katrina.

Because so much of what has been written about it has side-stepped the most arresting part: the sheer, undiluted sadness of the deaths, the loss, the devastation.

It’s hard to know how to respond to such exponential sorrow.

In some ways we are on dryer emotional ground when our response in the aftermath of Katrina is one of anger.

We raise important questions and demand real answers. Accusations, recriminations, denials and spin have become a kind of lingua franca as we try to comprehend the scope of the event and our nation’s response to it. Blame is tossed around like a hot potato in the children’s game. Don’t hang onto it too long or you may be held to account.

And this is just the first wave of response. I am convinced that harder questions will follow with answers that are even harder to trust than those our government is giving us now.

Why was a city with a predominantly black population left, literally, afloat when the need for help was so apparent and so great?

Why was the response to a natural disaster calculated to be the third most probable catastrophic risk to the United States so unfocused and ill-formed?

Why have political appointees and cronyism come to be the means by which we attempt to insure our nation’s safety?

Why is it that the federal government could not get food and buses into New Orleans nor our troops out of Iraq?

Why have we once again caused other nations to question our right to claim any kind of right to power when we have been shown to be so powerless in helping our own citizens in a time of sorest need?

And why was our president absent for so long from the site of disaster?

It brings to mind his absence four years ago on Sept. 11.

You see—once I got started I couldn’t stop. I hadn’t started out to write a column full of angry questions.

It is right, though, that we do ask questions, even if they are met with greasy answers and glib rationalizations. We need to press for explanations, even as we know there is much that can never be explained. What is needed is not further hot potato-tossing. What is needed is change.

But two things happen to impede change—or at least to make it seem less urgent.

For some, the angry questions threaten to become more about doing politics than about making change. The anger comes to serve a different end. As the failure of our government to deal with this disaster becomes harder to sweep under the rug, the more politicized our response to that failure becomes. FEMA’s ineptitude becomes the bellwether of our administration’s mismanagement of everything from the economy to the war in Iraq to our overall domestic policy.

I confess I find that a tempting trajectory. For those of us who have long sought for a breach in the Bush fortress, the post-Katrina mismanagement seems to raise a glimmer of hope: Could the devastation in New Orleans be the devastating blow to the power-drunk administration?

>From a political standpoint Katrina comes to seem like the Chinese ideogram said to mean both “crisis” and “opportunity.” There’s nothing like opportunity to distract a person from the sadness no one wants to face in the first place

For others, though, it won’t be the political opportunity that distracts from the sadness of Katrina; it will be the sheer barrage of media coverage. The horror of the hurricane itself will inevitably become domesticated as consumers become burned-out by so much footage, so many interviews, so much ink spilled to paint portraits of disaster.

It’s hard to keep on staring sadness right in the face. Just about anything is better than that: anger, politics, cable television.

But anger, politics and cable television aren’t enough to create the kind of change we need to make in our country.

The real change-agent is facing—feeling—the sadness.

But almost anything is easier than that.

We have been so inundated with images of sadness—hostages pleading, skyscrapers crumbling, parents weeping—that it is hard to look again and feel still more sorrow.

But analysis alone is as endless as criticism. Apathy is as toxic as sepsis.

Changing the world means we have to look at it without a running commentary in our head; we have to look without switching the mental channels in our brain. And for all the talk about “being in the moment” being the key to happiness, it’s also the shortest way to sadness—and the certain impetus for change.

President Bush just talked about the “de-watering” of New Orleans. He sees that as a sign of progress. No doubt he is right, in a way. But the deep need to help comes from the deep commitment to see the world as it is—so that real change can begin.

Essayist, poet and funeral director Thomas Lynch, writes “I am apostle of the present tense. After years and years of directing funerals, I’ve come to the conclusion that seeing is the hardest and most helpful part. The truth, even when it hurts, has a healing in it better than fiction or fantasy.”

—Jo Page


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