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Tragedy unites us but blame divides, in the aftermath of disaster

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HURRICANE KATRINA began as a natural disaster but quickly became a human tragedy. Oddly, we find it easier to cope with the first than with the second.

Natural disaster — a tsunami, an earthquake, a whirlwind — unites us. It reminds us of our human vulnerability, our smallness in the face of vast forces that shape and sometimes shake our planet. Hurricane Katrina produced as much energy in a single hour as the total consumption of America in a year. At such times we know we are dust on the surface of infinity, all too easily blown away.

That is why natural disasters bring out the best in people: heroic acts of rescue, waves of empathy, a spontaneous desire to help in whatever way we can. While the crisis lasts, we feel the covenant of human solidarity reminding us that we are our brother’s keeper.

In New Orleans, though, there was also human tragedy: the people left behind, the failure to organise evacuation, the absence of co-ordinated leadership, the looting, shooting and killing, the sheer slowness of rescue and relief. People look for people to blame. They ask, how did these things happen when the risk of flooding was known years before and the hurricane itself tracked several days earlier? How was it that the people for whom little provision was made were the poor, the old, the young, the sick? They should have been the disaster-planners’ first concern, not their last.

How was it that law and order broke down so quickly? There were days when it seemed as if we were watching a Mississippi version ofLord of the Flies, or Hobbes’s description of the state of nature, the “war of every man against every man” in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

We also saw in New Orleans a phenomenon replicated in many parts of the world — the existence of a third world enclave in a first world city. The global economy, free trade and technological progress have brought great benefits, but they are not distributed equally nor even equitably.

In the race of progress, too many are left behind, uncared for, neglected, suffering hidden injuries of class and race. That is not justice or compassion, the twin imperatives of a decent society, a moral world. More will have to be reconstructed than homes and businesses. There are values, ideals, principles that will have to be rebuilt as well.

An event of this magnitude must force a nation to look long and hard at itself in the mirror. The trouble is that while tragedy unites, blame divides. Pointing the finger at this agency or that, this individual or that, produces scapegoats, not change. If someone is responsible, the rest of us can walk away.

Complex failures have complex causes. Sometimes a whole culture is at fault. What might be a religious response? American history holds the answer. In 1861, and again in 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of prayer and fasting. He said: “We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God . . .

Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behoves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.”

Lincoln didn’t blame anyone for the tragedy that overtook America because of the conflict between slave owners and abolitionists. Instead he invited the whole nation, beginning with himself, to a day of self-reckoning and prayer. That was an honest and humble response, and one that healed some of the wounds that had opened up.

America is a religious country. Yet the religion of today is often an edited version of the real thing. It speaks of certainty, not the courage to live with uncertainty; of arrogance, not humility; of force, not the “still, small voice” that calls us to care for strangers, not just friends.

After the tragedy of New Orleans, America has the chance to recover its moral authority. But that will need humility, honesty and repentance, the courage to admit faults and ask for forgiveness. Likely? I don’t know. But necessary? Yes.

(First published in The Times)