View from the choir

I am a Catholic layperson and Secular Franciscan with a sense of humor. After years in the back pew watching, I have moved into the choir. It's nice to see faces instead of the backs of heads. But I still maintain God has a sense of humor - and that we are created in God's image.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Sharing the blame

The tragedy along the Gulf Coast - and especially in New Orleans - continues to unfold.

The loss of life, the suffering, the devastation to homes and business, the ecological and economic effects, are still beyond our ability to measure.

We need to pray. Many people are. We must continue to do so.

We need to help. Across the nation - and the world - people are responding magnificently with offers of money and supplies and so much more. Many of the people in New Orleans have also been helping each other in inspirational ways.

But, being Americans, many of us have, naturally, begun to to complain and blame.

There certainly is plenty of blame to go around.

Emergency planners have been warning for years about the potential for a problem in New Orleans if a major storm hit. Some efforts did get underway - and to be honest, changes will take years and probably could not have been completed in time to avoid what happened. But local, state and federal officials consistently failed to give the situation the serious attention it needed. (The buck stops with both Presidents Clinton and Bush for this failure).

Officials were slow to respond once the crisis began.

City and state officials in Louisiana and New Orleans asked people to evacuate New Orleans before the storm hit. Some of the poor, elderly and sick could not get out in time - the blame lies with the government not acting to help them, not with these people. But some people obstinately refused to leave even when they could have.

Some people have used the crisis as an opportunity to loot and brutalize others in the ravaged areas - and to scam people beyond the region. Stealing food and water is one thing - I don't blame anyone for that in such a situation - but televisions and computers, and raping and shooting and beating their fellow survivors?

However, there are some targets for blame I think are being overlooked.

Public officials have failed to address the infrastructure problems in New Orleans that could have lessened the current crisis - true.

One of the reasons they failed to deal with problems like inadequate levees and the needs of the poor was cost.

It would have taken billions to make the changes emergency planners have been calling for for more than a decade. It would have meant massive outlays of money to address the social and health needs of the poor.

But the added spending would have meant raising taxes, and raising taxes means losing elections because the voters have made it clear they won't stand for it. Indeed, budgets for agencies trying to prevent such a crisis were cut to help keep the voters happy.

So shame on us voters.

Shame on us who have consistently put our pocketbooks above the need to prepare for such disasters. Shame on us who preferred to see our taxes cut so we can buy that gas hog SUV and take that Disney World vacation or Carribean cruise rather than accepting the social responsibility for addressing the needs of the poor and the sick and neglected in our midst.

The irony is that as we watch the terrible images on our televisons we are all now full of compassion for many of the same poor, sick and neglected folks we have tried to ignore for years.

And we are even more upset because we have to pay more for gas to feed those gas hog SUVs.

I also heap a lot of blame on the media.

I say this having worked for 13 years as a print journalist (before returning to teaching) and for 20 years as a weekend radio announcer/newscaster.

I have been watching the media milk this crisis. They schedule special reports to repeat the same footage and interviews endlessly.

Then they show and play them again later, just in case we missed them the first six times.

They have tried to shape responses to fit their own slants - usually critical of the Bush administration (though, often with justice).

I remember one morning one network found a statement that fit its critical view of the administration, so reporters asked individual after individual about the statement. The next day, they lead with the statement as their focus for their broadcast, quoting those who went along with their view, but not playing the comments from people who challenged the statement or pointed out its incompleteness.

By and large, the mainstream media failed to do the in-depth reporting that might have alerted us to these potential problems earlier. They have devoted more space to talk show hosts who were denied the right to shop at a store, or to the pretty movie star who ditched his pretty televsion star wife for another pretty movie star than to reporting about issues that really matter.

Of course, they will say they are just giving their readers and viewers and listeners what they wanted.

That's an excuse that does not lessen their blame, but they have a point.

Many of us would rather focus on fluff than on substance.

We'd rather hear gossip about celebrities than the facts about the poor in our midst.

We'd rather learn about drugs to improve our sex lives than about the high cost of medicine for the uninsured and underinsured.

We'd rather discover secrets that will make us more beautiful - with minimal effort - than on dealing with the blighted and polluted parts of our cities.

We'd rather have cable and satellites and the internet so we can lose ourselves in entertainment than on making the effort to interact with other people outside our immediate circles and learning about them.

So in the end, I blame us.

The sad thing is, eventually the images of the poor people of New Orleans will go away, and we will once again ignore them.

Eventually the concern about inadequate emergency preparedness will fade away as we focus on such issues as who will be in the World Series and the Super Bowl, and which of the desperate housewives will get into the most embarrassing sexual situation this year.

Eventually, another crisis will hit, and we will wake up from our social, spiritual and cultural naps once again to hurl blame at someone else.

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