September 1 , 2005

It's a heavy week, any way you look at it.

Here in the New York area, the air has been thick, motionless and humid, no doubt the result of the furious tropical cataclysm that was Hurricane Katrina. There's a dreadful feeling that comes with it, one of tension, doubt and fatigue that makes you feel a like you weigh a hundred pounds more than you normally do. This morning, though, the high-pressure system blew through and I woke up to a beautiful day, cool, breezy and dry. Everything is gone...everything but the heaviness.

Not hard to see why. The story in New Orleans grows more gruesome with each passing hour. More and more lurid tales come forth of death, contamination and starvation amid the floodwater and the tropical, fetid air. Disease looms just ahead. And if a humanitarian crisis isn't enough, there's anarchy and shameless violence thrown into the mix - looting, shooting, arson, rape and cold-blooded murder. In another time it would have been impossible to believe that any American city could descend into such chaos in so short a time. But this is New Orleans in the 21st century, a city with high poverty and a high homicide rate, where booze can be found twenty-four-seven; where debauchery itself is a tourist attraction; where emotion runs as high as the humidity in the summer. It has a passion that gave the world jazz and the blues, and a vibe that suits artists and rhyme busters. People there are known for making the best of bad situations. What will they make of this one? What kind of art or poetry or music will come out of this city in the months to come, that is if whoever gets out alive gets back in?

To read the stories of that hellish place makes my problems look tiny and insignificant. It makes my own struggle for survival look like a vacation. And yet it makes my problems seem bigger than they really are because the emotion brought on is compounded. Concern becomes apprehension; apprehension magnifies into dread; dread balloons into despair. Am I feeling my own pain or someone else's? I can't tell anymore.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that it didn't have to be this bad. The weakened levees could've been repaired long before the storm, but the federal funds were diverted to pay for the Iraq war, a war for which there's a new rationale every day. The state National Guard could've been more effective, but their numbers were short due to deployment in Iraq. Supplementary troops are arriving, but again, they're fresh from duty in Iraq. Instead of troops who are trained to keep civilian order, there are troops who are trained to shoot first and ask questions later. More violent death around the corner. Meanwhile, politicians in Washington pat each other on the back for passing a disaster relief package four days too late. Why? They were all on vacation. International aid efforts were squashed by the White House. "America can take care of itself," sayeth the president. Hello??

The hurricane itself is natural, and therefore excusable (if you toss out the evidence that global warming is making hurricanes stronger), but the policy and the behavior are not. Did it take something this horrific to make this country sit up and take a look at itself? Sad part is, we won't. We always find a scapegoat, and usually it's God.

"God is a concept
By which we measure our pain"

-John Lennon


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