I remember watching the events of September 11 unfolding on live television nearly four years ago, and like many people in Washington, I kept one eye on the TV and another nervous eye on the skies over the Capitol building. Once it was clear the threat was over, I continued to watch as previously unfathomable stories of human misery and triumph unfolded on the streets of Lower Manhattan and at the Pentagon here in D.C.
For several days, I watched the coverage, unwilling and unable to look away. But tonight, in light of another disaster — one that is somehow worse than 9/11 because it was so unbelievable, the destruction of an American city — I can’t watch anymore.
Dead bodies piled up on the streets of New Orleans. Old people and babies dying as military helicopters whiz by overhead. A dead man hunched over in a wheelchair, a note pinned to his sleeve with the name of his next-of-kin.
I don’t think it’s the scope of the misery that has pushed me to my breaking point. Instead, I’m upset that these people are Americans, in a major American city, and it doesn’t seem that anyone is going to help them.
For my own professional reasons, I won’t comment on what appears to be an ineffective response from the federal government — the editorial board of a major American newspaper did that today. But watching television tonight, I saw the director of the nation’s emergency management agency say that he was just today made aware of the situation at the New Orleans Convention Center, epicenter for so much of the death and despair that is now taking place there.
He said he would move Heaven and earth to get aid to those people, and yet, nothing has arrived.
The hope in this story is that millions of Americans — and,I would guess, people around the world, are responding in the only way they can: they are pouring money into the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Police officers and fire fighters are streaming into the Gulf States to help. Families around the country — including here in Washington and Baltimore — are opening their homes to strangers, people who are refugees in their own country.
But right now, at this moment, none of that generosity or aid seems to be getting to the people who need it most; people who have lost everything include hope and people who, I wonder, will ever get it back.