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How the government failed the people of New Orleans

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

But this is America. In sorrow, in rage, but mainly in incredulity, as the images of the suffering in New Orleans and its region began to rip at the eyes and the minds of the entire country, Americans were heard to say, in one way or another: But this is America. The mass pain that was inflicted by Katrina was not only tragic, it was incoherent. For Americanism is significantly the faith that such evils do not happen here. It is the doctrine of insulation. That is why many people wish to come here: They believe that here they may escape the malevolences of history and nature, that here they will be in some unprecedented way safe, and strangers to tragedy. Americans are always so shocked when they turn out not to be exceptions to the universe. Their president also: "The people we're talking about are not refugees," President Bush insisted. But they are plainly refugees, and these refugees will be a feature of American life in many states for many months and even years to come. When was the last time that the noun "refugee" was modified by the adjective "American"? So the Americanist innocence, too, was drowned in Katrina's waters. Our invulnerability is not perfect. The storm beat us.

But this is America. The words were not a protest only against the flood. They were a protest also against the aftermath of the flood, which was not a natural catastrophe but a human one. Americanism is also the conviction that the wretchedness of large numbers of Americans is unacceptable, an offense to the American idea, a spur to American action. We take care of our own, and our efficiency is a measure of our decency. But when our efficiency fails us, we must conclude that our decency failed us, too. "No insignificant person was ever born," Bush unforgettably declared in his first inaugural address. How significant, exactly, were the persons who waited for days for relief and rescue from the Superdome and the Convention Center and the other makeshift purgatories, while the rest of the country watched their dehumanization on television? We did not take care of our own, not swiftly, not fiercely, not as if nothing in the world was more important to us. The natural fury that caused this misery should have been met with a human fury to alleviate it. It was not.

More, the American belief in American decency is, to a large extent, a belief in American government. For all the suspicion of power upon which this country was founded, the view of government as a force for ill has never really prevailed in America, because it would have defeated the American hunger for justice. American history over the last hundred years is a stirring tale of government in the proud and largely effective service of compassion. Consider also the ironic history of the Bush administration, the many times that human need, real and imagined, at home and abroad, has required it to betray its philosophy of small and limited government. Sometimes "we" cannot take care of our own; only our government can. In times of emergency, the power of the federal government may be a beautiful thing. When Bush finally flew to the devastation, he said: "In America, we do not abandon our fellow citizens in our hour of need. And the federal government will do its part." Its part? But this is America. Sometimes the federal government's part is the whole, or most of it. This should have been so in the early hours, when the local and state authorities showed their fecklessness. Instead, microincompetence was succeeded by macro-incompetence.

And by our own, we mean all of our own. Disasters often reveal how we live. One of the most chilling things in New Orleans last week was the extent to which all of us were not represented in the crisis. The some of us who suffered were overwhelmingly poor and black. If you did not see race and class, you were blind. Barbara Bush saw race and class, and expressed race and class, when she visited the Houston Astrodome: "And so many of the people in the arenas here, you know, were underprivileged anyway. So this is working very well for them."

But the people living in the refugee camp on the Astroturf are not underprivileged, they are destitute. The good news is that most Americans did not respond like the overprivileged former first lady. Near and far, they saw race and class and they rushed to help--thereby shaming their government, which is one of the duties of civil society. Now American government will no doubt demonstrate its capacity for good, but it is not American government, with its briefings and its drop-bys, that will have preserved American solidarity. There were no heroes in office, but there will have been heroes. Perhaps this really is America.