What We Do To Ourselves

Many Americans who were alive and old enough to remember it, define 9/11 as the most significant historical and cultural event of their lifetime. The sudden, tragic death of more than 3,000 people, the fact that it was unfolding live on television, the sheer scope of the destruction, and the toppling of a symbol of the countries wealth, the resulting economic power and sheer ambition shook them to their inner most core. It was a tragedy on a scale we had never really had to deal with before. The age of innocence ended. We were forced to deal with realities we hadn't been able to fully contemplate. There's no doubt we were left changed, culturally and politically, as a result of 9/11.

The thing about 9/11 was that as much as we may have contributed to the environment that created the people who did it, we didn't do it to ourselves. As Americans who benefit from the kind militaristic colonialism and resource poaching our government and military perpetrate, we do have some degree of responsibility for contributing to creating that environment. As true as that is, it does not excuse the horror those 19 people perpetrated on a few million people who were just doing their best to live their lives in the best way they understood and hadn't had a direct involvement in the grievances 9/11 was meant to highlight and address. I've heard the argument made that because we, as a people benefit from and do not stop our government and military from their perpetration of horror on other countries, we are all just as culpable. I don't really believe that. I believe that the people of Afghanistan were as terrorized by the groups responsible for the attack on 9/11 as we were, and I believe that our government, our military and the kinds of businesses that profit off of war and death have been exploiting us for a very long time. The argument that 9/11 was the result of rational self interest does not take into account that it's the same basic philosophy of those who have so long beat the drum for war, and it is only rational in the most short term, for exactly the reason people make the argument that those of us who just happened to be born in the United States and framed by it's culture are responsible for 9/11. It only leads to more of the same. We use our military and our economic power as a stick to keep other countries in line, despite their independence from us, and that violence begets retaliation, which begets the tightening of our fist, which begets more retaliation. Given the history of the United States involvement in the Middle East, the kind of anger and hatred that creates the people who perpetrated the attack on 9/11 was inevitable, it's written all over human history. As much as it is the failure of the United States that we continue that kind of militarized colonialism and colonialist economics, it is also the failure of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIL, Boko Haram and their various peers to understand that this repetition of history can never lead to the world they believe they are trying to and want to create. It is that environment, created by military and economic decisions, that creates the atmosphere where 19 men may be convinced to take the lives of millions of people. The hatred and anger it displays is stoked, tended and fed by those who choose to manipulate the people within their sphere of influence, as is true of culture and politics in the United States. Though there is a degree of responsibility the American people share for the political choices we make, the things we allow in our name and the benefits we receive from those things, 9/11 was not solely our doing.

It's those facts, that the sole responsibility did rest on us as a society, government and culture, that make Hurricane Katrina a more significant historical and cultural event. We may not have been responsible for the hurricane itself, but we are responsible for everything leading up to it and everything that has followed. The Army Corps of engineers failed to build the levee's to the necessary specifications, Congress repeatedly refused to devote funding to maintaining the levee system properly, the state government of Louisiana and the city government of New Orleans failed to have proper evacuation plans in place, and as a government and culture we've refused to take climate change and the warnings of intensified storms seriously.

Those are the strictly bureaucratic failures, before the storm even landed on shore. They don't even begin to touch on the degree to which we have been content to live in a society where systematic inequality insures the cycle of poverty that helped to trap residents in the city, the racism that helps insure the black population continues to make up an inordinate percentage of the poor or that the bureaucratic failures that began long before the storm landed faced little to no real criticism.

It became clear within the first days of the disaster that if you lived in a city that was a , you can not expect the government, society or culture you live in to have met the responsibilities necessary to prevent your city from becoming a wasteland or to be able to provide aid if it did. Then, there was the militarized assault on the people who were attempting to survive. Homeland Security wasted no time employing military contractors for "security purposes," but couldn't figure out how to get water and food in to help prevent the necessity of "security personnel." This wasn't just the result of negligence, it was the result of the cultural and political attitude of aggression that has existed toward the poor and people of color for centuries. It was, in so many ways, the logical result of the things we refused to face, in the decades before the Katrina hit land and after.

The narrative surrounding Hurricane Katrina has been that a poorly prepared city was devastated by a natural disaster, the poor were without the ability to take refuge and government ineptitude compounded the whole thing. Like the most pernicious varieties of feeble minded explanations that are easy to swallow and make for easy to write rush headlines and sound bites, there are kernels of truth to that explanation. Prior to Katrina, 70,000 of New Orleans residents lived below the poverty line. Child poverty in Louisiana was only surpassed by Mississippi. It was a humanitarian crisis before Katrina. Before Katrina, the majority of the city's population was black, and the same is true of it's population living below the poverty line. Ignoring systematic inequality has a cost in human lives everyday, but it usually lives outside of our headlines and away from the eyes and perspectives of the centers of political, economic and cultural power. For all of the back slapping and congratulations being given to the "New" New Orleans after Katrina, in spite of the lessons that could have been learned as a result, much hasn't changed. Let's be very, very clear here. Thousands dead, bodies floating in the streets, and murder have not been enough to drive us a nation or the people who have now taken power in New Orleans to decide the cost of systematic inequality is not too high. This should make all of us question just where we fall in the order of importance. It's easy to understand the feeling that "this is what happens to them" as a defense mechanism, but the more sensible reaction is actually, "when do I become the them?" Where does the line between who matters and who doesn't actually sit? What does it take to move that line, in either direction? These are things we should be asking ourselves these questions.

The example provided by New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina has gone unheeded. Systematic inequality is still ignored. We're still moving more slowly than we can afford to address climate change, which assures the peak effects will be worse when they arrive. We're still ignoring or under funding infrastructure.

We're going to do this to ourselves again, because the cost of doing something else is too inconvenient and requires answering too many hard questions like adults who want to leave their children and grandchildren a better world. 


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