Tragedy forces Americans to come to grips with big issues

September 09, 2005|By Tara Sonenshine

WASHINGTON - Tragedies often bring out the truth, shining a light on the darkest of corners, laying bare the most basic of issues. So may be the case with Hurricane Katrina. The nightmare in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama will force Americans to confront hard questions about how we lead our lives, at home and abroad.

For the moment, attention is rightly focused on the physical acts of survival. But as the water recedes and life-and-death decisions get made, some bigger truths will need to be stared down:

Quality of life. In our inner cities, it's clearly below the acceptable level for a wealthy superpower that shoulders responsibilities for dealing with global poverty. Many of the people who could not evacuate New Orleans or surrounding areas owned no cars and had no access to airline tickets.

Some who are homeless today had no homes before. Others were more fortunate but now experience life as many of the underprivileged in our cities and towns have lived for years. We simply have to look again at the economic profile of our American cities and the way people live within them.

War. For years we have debated the ability of the U.S. military to fight two wars simultaneously, never thinking that one might be on American soil. Are we stretched too thin militarily? Have the actions in Iraq and Afghanistan left us with fewer reserves, fewer National Guard troops, fewer transport planes and Navy ships? These are fundamental trade-offs that the American people need to confront if we are to feel comfortable securing our own communities and the global community. If America is to be strong internationally, it must be sturdy at home.

Energy. For too long we have left the energy debate to politicians, with elitist arguments over the strategic reserves and the designs of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Now that the Gulf of Mexico oil industry is partially paralyzed, our nation will again face severe energy choices. Consumer spending and energy priorities must become top public issues in this deepening crisis. We can't afford to postpone the national debate over energy.

Politics. This crisis will test political will and partisanship. Republicans will have to reach across a huge political divide. Democrats will have to walk the line between criticism and crisis intervention. And those within the federal bureaucracy must not point fingers at each other or pass the buck.

Race. Can we as a nation close our eyes and see no color barriers, no walls? Can we face up to the fact that African-Americans appeared to be disproportionately at risk in the storm and that racism and poverty still keep people down?

Faith. No church or synagogue or mosque will have a monopoly on generosity or charity. Everyone will need to have faith now.

Intolerance. The crisis of looting, near-riotous behavior, rival gangs squaring off in a stadium of victims, random gunfire - these issues reflect both expected frustration and misery emanating from the immediate horrors of a natural disaster. They possibly stem from an anger that has been raging for months as a deeply politically divided nation confronts its moral challenges. As we sort out the heroic stories from the acts of incivility, we will need to look at our capacities for generosity in anxious times.

As we search for victims and care for survivors, Americans must also do some soul-searching. What do we value most? What price are we willing to pay to adhere to those values? And where do our priorities lie, at home and overseas? If we can answer these questions, we can begin to face and shape the future.

Tara Sonenshine was a deputy director of communications for the National Security Council in the Clinton administration and a former contributing editor at Newsweek magazine.

Columnist Trudy Rubin is traveling.

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