SOMETIMES I HAVE a strong urge to resign in disgust from the Amalgamated Federation of Pollsters, Pundits, Politicians and Pompous Pontificators. This is one of those times.
No sooner had Hurricane Katrina roared through Louisiana and adjacent states than every blockhead with a microphone or a word processor felt compelled to spout off about What It All Means -- and, more important, Who Is to Blame.
Ordinary people are sitting at home, transfixed by the spectacle unfolding on their television screens. Their hearts are breaking as they watch the horrifying spectacle of an entire city drowned. Many have already contributed what they can to the American Red Cross, to the Salvation Army, to the other armies of compassion, and only wish they could do more.
What must they think of the talking heads who treat this as if it were another bit of minor grist for the political mills? As if this were another story about some politician’s war record or a nominee’s nanny issues. The callowness now on display goes a long way toward explaining why politicians and the media are held in public esteem somewhere above child molesters and below bankers.
Two thousand years ago -- even 200 years ago -- a Katrina-scale calamity would have been blamed on the gods. In many parts of the world that is still the impulse; witness the stoicism with which Bangladesh faces the regular loss of tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of its citizens from natural disasters. But, for better or worse, such resignation before the fury of nature is not the modern Western way. In our view, nature must be tamed, and therefore all disasters are unnatural. We blame anything that goes wrong not on the gods in the sky but on the gods in Washington -- as if a hurricane could be caused by an excess of hot air emanating from our capital.
Pontificators of a leftist persuasion are pointing the finger of blame at President Bush and his Department of Homeland Security for not doing a better job of disaster preparation. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert claims the message of the past week is, “Bush to New Orleans: Drop Dead.” Conservatives are jumping in to defend the administration and assign blame to the Democratic mayor of New Orleans and the Democratic governor of Louisiana. No doubt both criticisms have some merit: Insofar as anyone can be held accountable for last week’s horrors, there is plenty of blame to go around.
But why do we feel compelled to skip so readily from this ongoing tragedy to the postmortem? It is almost as if the fourth quarter of a football game were called off so that the analysts could more quickly dissect what happened in the first three quarters. Except that this game can’t be stopped. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff still has to go about his job of restoring order and helping survivors even as he has to deal with insolent interviewers who want to know when he’s planning to tender his resignation.
Lest this be mistaken for a generalized anti-media rant, let me stipulate that the reporters on the ground are doing a superlative job in a difficult, dangerous situation. They are providing vital information not only for couch potatoes at home but also for officials who can act on the news they unearth.
The target of my ire is people like, well, me: those of us who are supposed to make sense of events. It’s an important job but also one in which it is all too easy to sacrifice perspective on the altar of immediacy.
At this point, we simply don’t know what it all means and who, if anyone, is to blame. Many of the attempts to assign blame have already been revealed as farcically unconvincing. The argument, for instance, that Katrina is the offspring of global warming ignores meteorological records that show that the number of hurricanes has been cycling up and down for decades. An even more incendiary charge -- that the response was dilatory because so many victims were African Americans -- is presented with even less evidence, which is to say, none at all. No doubt other nuggets of insta-analysis will also be debunked in the days ahead, while future investigations will reveal problems that no one knew existed.
Eventually it will be important to figure out what happened and why in order to prevent a repeat -- if we can. (And that’s a big if.)
But not now. Now soldiers and relief workers must concentrate on the tasks at hand -- saving the living, burying the dead, restoring the rule of law. Everything else can wait, even in this instant-gratification world of 24/7 sound bites.