A divided America stares at us from New Orleans
On the anniversary of a tragedy that brought Americans together, the tragedy wrought by Hurricane Katrina is pulling Americans apart.
While terrorists said they targeted the World Trade Center because it was a symbol of capitalism, the fierce response was not limited to those surfing atop our economy. The only division was between them and us. The terrorists were "them" and deserved the harshest of punishments from God and man.
Despite the horror of that day and the tragic stories of those who lost loved ones, it was a time of unity. All Americans — rich, poor, black, white — coalesced against the forces that killed so many and killed so arbitrarily.
Woven into the fabric of tragedy were the threads of hope.
Four years later, we are in the midst of another tragedy. The floods of Hurricane Katrina took the lives of many, possibly more than were lost in the terrorist attacks. Horrible deprivation continues to visit the people who survived the hurricane and floods.
Just as they did four years ago, Americans rolled up their sleeves and opened their pocketbooks. The survivors needed help, and many Americans rushed to their side.
But differences between the two tragedies were evident. Many of those overwhelmed by the New Orleans flood expressed not thanks but anger. Even as people died on their rooftops, deprived of food and drinking water, the finger-pointing engulfed us. The unity so evident in the months following Sept. 11, 2001, drowned quickly in the post-hurricane muck.
Why the difference? One reason was that the images jarred us. Not just by showing us hurricane-wrought deprivation, they demanded that we look at those separated from our idea of American life by more than water.
The deaths on Sept. 11, 2001, were arbitrary. The deaths in New Orleans were not.
We were forced to see a population that was barely treading water even before the levees broke. We saw tens of thousands of people who lacked the ability to escape the coming tides. People — almost all black — who live not the American dream, but its nightmare.
A few such people were so disconnected from our image of America that attacks on rescue helicopters, widespread looting and arson seemed a continuation of the clash between "them" and "us" in Baghdad.
In New Orleans, we saw the have-nots, the poverty-stricken children of God who remained well hidden until the day flood waters and cameras descended.
What we saw was the unsettling end of the gap between rich and poor.
According to one study, the 13,000 richest families in the United States now have almost as much income as the 20 million poorest. Those 13,000 families have incomes 300 times that of average families.
The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that the poverty rate rose again last year, with 1.1 million more Americans living in poverty in 2004 than a year earlier. African-Americans have a poverty rate of 24.7 percent. The rate for whites is 8.6 percent.
In New Orleans, 67 percent of the residents are black. Almost 30 percent lived below the poverty line.
Even Federal Reserve chairman and free-market champion Alan Greenspan sees the growing disparity between the rich and poor as a powder keg.
"This is not the type of thing which a democratic society — a capitalist democratic society — can really accept without addressing," he told a congressional committee in June.
Americans have watched people grieving and dying from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. What bothered us almost as much as the grief, however, was the death of our illusions of life in America.
What bothered us was the divisiveness of capitalism gone wrong, even as the nation demonstrated its generosity in time of tragedy.