Saturday, September 10, 2005

Tell them that it's human nature

I don't know how an entire week has rushed by again...I think about blogging, but I don't seem to find the time and clarity of thought to actually write anything down.

I have to say this awful hurricane has consumed much of my mind for days and days now. We spent so much time flipping between CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, it was kind of starting to take over our lives. There's nothing I can say about the magnitude of the situation that hasn't been said by a million other bloggers and journalists and pundits. But what I was thinking this week was that it's a window into human nature on a scale you usually only get from novels by Tom Wolfe or satire by Jonathan Swift. We've really gotten to see it all:

--Opportunism. Those looters whose footage we keep seeing over and over again...I'd call them opportunists. Same with the murderers and rapists who terrorized innocent people. They saw an opportunity to get something, whether ten pairs of Nikes or a sick and twisted sense of total power, and they seized it. But just as opportunistic are the politicians who are leaping on a natural disaster to get in a few more licks at an administration they despise, and snatching a bit of face-time for themselves while they're at it. And the reporters (admittedly a minority) who turn rescue operations into their own personal ratings grab. Geraldo Rivera, I am SO talking to you right now. Maggots feeding on corpses are higher on the food chain than these people.

--Buck-passing. Or as the Bush sound bite team would have it, "the blame game." Everybody has a reason why they couldn't fulfill their part of the disaster response...and the reason is...."He/she/it/they [wildly pointing a finger] didn't fulfill THEIR responsibility first. Don't blame me. I just work here." Here's a thought: how about taking responsibility for what you could have/should have done differently? There's plenty of blame to go around, Mayor Nagin, Governor Blanco, President Bush, Mr. Brown and Mr. about just taking on a teeny bit of it? Stand up like the grown-ups you should be and shoulder that load.

--Hardness of heart and head. Also known as "Those people never should have been there in the first place"-ism. I've seen most of this particular attitude on the Internet, mostly from people who have never seen a hurricane in their lives and yet can state with perfect conviction what every single person's response should be to every single storm that kicks up in the Atlantic or the Gulf. Why expend sympathy on people who didn't do what YOU think they should have done?

--Drum-beating. Here's where we take a tragedy and use it to beat the drum for our own personal complaint. Bush is a racist, he's killing black people. The welfare-state caused this--but global warming most assuredly did not. And how about that war in Iraq--you just know it's to blame for part of this. Maybe this falls under opportunism, I don't know. Maybe it's a little more well-intentioned. I mean, it's good to start talking about why this hit the poorest and sickest the hardest--what an eloquent acquaintance of mine reminded us are "the least of these." And why so many of those poor and sick also happen to be black. What's disheartening is how this conversation always--always--falls back into us/them, liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican, who-can-scream-the-loudest rhetoric...and the very real problems never get truly addressed. If that's not human nature, I don't know what is.

All right...the good thing is that human nature has a flip side. It doesn't seem to surface as often as the other side, but it's there:

--Bravery. The six-year-old boy who took care of six babies, all of whom were evacuated without their parents. The people who tried to organize and lead others in the midst of complete chaos when there was no leadership. The rescuers who braved sniper fire to save lives. The cops and firefighters who tried to hold a city together and who now have so much blame heaped on them for failing. The National Guardsmen who now patrol the dark corners of New Orleans.

--Generosity. Half a billion dollars raised in a week, and that's just for the Red Cross, I believe. The state of Texas stepping right up to take in its neighbors. My local Red Cross chapter has gotten so many calls from people wanting to volunteer, they can't process them all right away. And story after story of people who loaded up trucks with food, water or equipment, hopped in and drove straight to the Gulf from all over the country, using their vacation time and their own money.

--Skill. We've seen and heard about incompetence at pretty much every turn, but how about the displays of extreme competence we've seen? Like those Coast Guard guys plucking people off rooftops with harnesses and baskets? They make it look so easy, and you know it's not. How about the city of Houston mobilizing volunteers, staff, and supplies at the Astrodome in a matter of hours? Oh, oh, oh--and can we get a round of applause for the doctors and nurses who practiced their skills in hospitals and nursing homes and hotels and on sidewalks, without electric power, without enough food and water, without the most basic medical supplies? Ventilating patients by hand for hours and days? Gold medals all around. I admire people who have skill and know how to use it in a crisis. What would we do without people like that?

--Grace. We haven't seen too much of that on the news either, but it's there. The Mississippians who looked at the bare spots where their homes were and could still muster a smile of gratitude for what they still have: their lives and their families. Strangers taking care of the babies or elderly people that fate placed next to them in the Superdome or on a street corner. Another acquaintance of mine has been volunteering at a distribution center in northern Louisiana, and she has story after story of people who come in seeking pants, underwear, toothbrushes, medicine. The volunteers press more and more into their hands, but each of these people, who have nothing left in the world, says "No, no, I don't need all that...there are so many others who are worse off than me. Save it for them."

That's grace. And though the cynic in me shakes my head and sometimes smirks at the outrageous and heartbreaking side of human nature that Katrina brought out...the rest of me is so inspired by the gorgeous and loving side that she brought out as well.

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