Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Sad American Story

A front page article in today’s Chicago Tribune gives horrific details about what went on inside the Superdome and the convention center in New Orleans in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, and it just turns one’s stomach. And, politically correct or not, the truth is that my mind reels at this information with an uncomfortable mixture of pity and sorrow, and of disgust, despair and revulsion.

On the one hand there is an obvious amazement and horrification that these incredibly third-world-looking scenes took place in America, in a very public place in a major American city. It’s hard to accept that this degree of despair and mass pain and panic and suffering could happen here, directly under all our eyes (without even addressing the tardy governmental response, which has justly been noted). I am ashamed and sorry and depressed at this.

But--I hate that there’s even a “but”--I’m lying if I don’t say at the same time that I am taken aback by the extent to which civilization departed this crowd, at how completely a lord-of-the-flies kind of mob violence took over. Is this what our police forces are keeping us from becoming? People died of knife and gunshot wounds, and from dehydration, women and children were raped, the elderly were robbed, gang fights raged, huge areas of the facilities were wantonly destroyed, possibly beyond reclamation.

I feel like I’m searching in vain for some explanation as to how what must surely be a small, maurauding group of miscreants could basically cause the descent of 20,000 people into brutal survival mode. How could the great, upstanding majority of this crowd not have banded together to protect people? How could the weak and helpless and elderly be victimized under the noses of surely more numerous, able-bodied, well-meaning people?

I’m heartened to read that there were people trying actively to counter the thugs and criminals. But it’s little comfort that these people seemed to need some serious balls to stand up to the maurauders. How could the criminal element not be seriously outnumbered and thrown out on their ears for their bad behavior? As it was, people literally were dying while each person was looking out for themselves. There was not enough compassion to extend to those who needed help. Those few who dedicated themselves to helping others were simply overwrought and outnumbered.

Are we really no further from our basest nature than this? Is this, as I hate to say has been suggested to me, just a glimpse behind a door we try to keep tightly locked at all times? Or was the situation simply that dire? I’m terrified that I’m blaming the victims, passing judgment on people who’ve been thru hell; but the descriptions make it seem as though people were suffering at the hands of others as much or more than they were suffering from the effects of a horrible natural disaster. I guess I just don’t know how to process this. These scenes are absolutely heartbreaking, and I’m not ready to abandon my sense that people are basically decent.


Joshua said...

I have been troubling myself most the day with how I feel about this. I have not come up with anythign conclusive, so I will just write out what I have:

On the one hand, I want to remind myself that most the people who ended up in the dome were poor, hungry, and stretched to the end of human existance. Still, they did not break out of the social contract and do what the few named in the article did. That should not have to be commended, but it is.

I cannot find fault, try as I might, that these people did not band together. Hope and faith keep most people going, and help them funtion in a group. They had little enough of that to spare, and as such were in no mind to work against what they must have seen as just another thing being piled on.

That being said, I cannot find the neccesary excuses for humankind to allow my mind to fathom what those vultures did. Nor can I find the compassion neccesary to allow my heart to open to their victims. That last I say for this reason:

The socioeconomic forces be damned, these people are STILL human, and should have a lot more care for humankind, regardless of the lack of authority. In fact, if the threat of repremand is the only thing keeping them from doing what they do, then I say they have long ago abandoned the monicker "human" and should not be counted against the rest of mankind. It pains me to think all the effort, money, time, and heartache that will go back into the rebuilding of this area will just facilitate the growth of this subset of society. If this is the case, I scream "Why Bother".

I know that sounds harsh, but I Think too often we allow for the defense of the very scum of the earth, and let them hide behind the excuses made from poverty, strife, and any other thing we feel sorry and guilty for as a society. Several of our leaders, and the people who display the finest of our qualities, came from the same circumstances with much better results. The excuses we make are every bit responsible for the actions those people take, and I am sick of it. No more should we shelter them, physically or emotionally, if they choose to act in the manner these people have.

As you can see, the emotion is still very high in this, and as I calm down, I am sure some of these ideas and opinions will take a more humanistic bent.


wunelle said...

It sounds like you and I are kind of in the same place. I feel somehow morally deficient that my overarching reaction to all this is not simply unalloyed compassion. And it is in theory. But this glimpse into some of humanity's dark corners has served to rob me of some of my illusions, and, at the risk of sounding like a Republican, I'm forced to wonder how much of my compassion rests on illusion.

But I should state what I think clearly: there were thousands of good people in a very dire situation; they needed help, and as a civilized society we should have been quick and unhesitant to extend it.

I think, for those of us who were fortunate enough not to get trapped by this storm, we find ourselves grappling not simply with questions of law enforcement and disaster response, but with much more fundamental things like poverty and education and race. These are all hot button issues, and we're not, as a society going to find anything like a consensus on any of them. We haven't reached consensus anyway, but we especially won't during a crisis.

I suppose it's like anything else--we must fight not to let the minority exceptions forge our approach to the majority. Arguments against welfare always tend to focus on that ugly 5% who most people agree are not worthy of the assistance. But that 5% ought not set our policy toward the other 95%.

Joshua said...

I could not agree more with that. And I also think a lot of good stories are being missed here. As of today, the red cross alone has raised over 600 million dollars in aide. That is just humanity at its best.

Why so many people are confused is we want to believe in those stories (and we should) but we have a hard time putting the people who are the worst in the same category as the people who are the best, and everyone else in between. The truth is we are more capable than any other living thing of diversity. With that comes the problem of negative diversity, and we are certainly seeing enough of that.

The caution, as you eluded to, is to make sure we don;t see so much of that we forget that the majority of us are still working towards positive diversity.