John Buell

Katrina and the Geography of Good, Evil

How ironic that the New Orleans Superdome became the modern Noah's Ark for thousands of the city's poor. This pretentious monument was funded by public taxes, yet its games and spectacles were priced well beyond the reach of the poor. For most it was probably their first visit to the dome. Tragically, for some it was a burial ground.

Katrina has once again exposed the deep divisions that mar our society. Whether it will become an occasion to reshape not only policy but the tone of national political debate remains to be seen. The consequences may hinge on how citizens, commentators and politicians play the blame game that the horrendous toll of death and destruction will leave in its wake.

Some Christian conservatives have been criticized for bringing God, religion and philosophy into debates about natural catastrophes. Yet unexpected deaths of apparently random individuals inevitably invite profound religious and philosophical questions. More importantly, individuals' readings of tragedy subtly infiltrate the content and tone of their political dialogue. Social conservatives have a right to their say, though I am troubled by the dogmatism with which they express their claims. My own faith suggests that other religious interpretations, expressed with more sensitivity to their own limits, could yield tangible changes in the direction of our policy.

Katrina, like other natural disasters, leads many to wonder why some die and others are spared, a question Job raised. Katrina, however, also exposes another, modern evil, the forms of exclusion and discrimination that leave the poor even within advanced societies so vulnerable.

These are distinct forms of evil, but they can interact. From my perspective, anxieties raised by nature's sheer unpredictability and human finitude (our mortality and our limited knowledge) often lead to destructive policy debates. These debates go beyond exploring a legitimate range of questions about how best to understand and prepare for catastrophe. They become in effect quests for revenge against the human condition.

To reassure ourselves against finitude we claim permanent moral truths. Our revenge against finitude then takes two related forms. Vast national problems are blamed on the character or limitations of individuals or small groups. Claims are made for policy agendas that far surpass the evidentiary basis we would normally demand. Those who oppose these agendas then are seen as not merely wrong but even evil. These tendencies cross usual political boundaries.

Thus far even most major social conservative organizations have shied away from attributing the New Orleans disaster to abortion or other "sinful" practices in the city. Nonetheless, an air of moral certainty and condemnation colors many liberal and conservative perspectives on this tragedy. Violence is inexcusable, but some media and political leaders fail to distinguish between acts of brutality and thefts intended to save one's family from starvation.

Many who fault Bush, however, fail to acknowledge responsibility that extends far beyond him. That Bush's policy choices have contributed to the magnitude of this disaster seems clear. Recent cuts in the Army Corps of Engineers budgets for flood remediation efforts seem especially indefensible. Drawing so heavily on National Guard troops to fight the Iraq war has left many states dangerously vulnerable. Nor are these criticisms mere Monday morning quarterbacking. They were made at the time by many commentators.

Bush's neglect of intra-city transit and his easy assertions that African Americans now occupy a level playing field have had undesirable consequences. It is not an accident that so many African Americans in New Orleans had few ways to escape. Here also, however, Americans well outside the circle of the Bush administration regard poverty as a reflection of moral character. President Clinton, who gained praise among some liberal commentators for his willingness to begin a dialogue on race, was notably silent on class. Worse still, his welfare reform program emphasized the moral and educational deficiencies of the poor. His trade programs then systematically reduced the number of good manufacturing jobs that had eased earlier minorities out of poverty.

Both political parties and a far wider segment of the American public also bear some responsibility for the long-run factors contributing to this disaster. Writing recently for the Washington Post, Ellen Schell points out that following earlier floods, there was much brave talk about curbing the folly of building on flood plains. Nonetheless, after the 1993 Midwestern floods a record 2.2 billion was spent on new developments in the St. Louis Metropolitan area.

Some environmentalists have their own set of certitudes. Bush's denial of the reality of climate change is thought by many to be a factor in the increased incidence of violent weather patterns. Yet although the models of greenhouse warming are gaining in power and acceptance, relating long-term warming to one particular storm still takes a leap of faith. And even had Bush moved aggressively on climate issues from the first days of his administration, would these actions have reduced global warming sufficiently to moderate this storm?

More fundamentally, a growing minority within the scientific community itself now doubts that science itself can yield fully predictive models of the natural world. This inability may reflect the limits of our minds or nature in itself. Nature itself may move along in smooth ways for a time and then show periodic and random shifts and disruptions, leading to new equilibrium positions. It is not that nature is utterly chaotic but that no order is final and all-embracing.

Acceptance of a world in which change and disruption can always play some role need not stall efforts to alleviate preventable suffering. Indeed, in human terms, acceptance of the reality of some unexplained death and suffering may reduce our psychic needs to bind everyone to eternal moral truths. It could allow more dialogue with those who differ from us not merely in policy but philosophy over ways to assure that as many different kinds and stripes can live together.

My own -- albeit contestable -- faith, gleaned in part from the great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, suggests that God did not will all, but He wills that we make the best of all.

John Buell of Southwest Harbor, Maine, is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News. His new book, coauthored with Tom DeLuca, is Liars, Cheaters, Evil Doers: Demonization and the End of Civil Discourse in American Politics, published in August by New York University Press. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Oct. 1, 2005

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