After 9/11, I woke up in a Bizarro-world where George W. Bush was the most powerful man on earth and whatever he happened to think on that day passed for absolute truth. Ever since, I've had the nagging feeling of having stumbled into the wrong reality - that somewhere in another dimension, Al Gore is President and everything is just the way it used to be. Well, history carries with it its own ironies, reversals, and concealed symmetries. It appears now that as the winds of Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans, we may have been blown back into the "regular" world, the very one we departed from when the planes struck the World Trade Center.
What I mean is that although the catastrophe of 9/11 impacted America in ways that we still don't fully understand, one of the most significant and unexpected consequences was a sudden shift in the national and global balance of power, a dangerous and unfortunate accident which just happened to benefit an extraordinarily fanatical and corrupt regime. In effect the hijacked airliners struck a bulls-eye in the heart of the American democratic tradition, catalyzing an authoritarianism which might otherwise have simply lain dormant. 9/11 created a different America that had always been a possibility but had never yet become actualized. That was 9/11. That was one catastrophe, and its consequences.
Now almost exactly four years later, Hurricane Katrina has struck the United States with equal force, and its repercussions may be exactly the opposite of the previous disaster. In a "post-Katrina" America, it's the Bush administration which looks and sounds hollow and out of touch, with none of its ploys and feints working anymore. The hurricane and its aftermath has galvanized the very populace which has been most complacent in the gradual erosion of freedom and rationality from the character of American public life. The obligation of citizenship, so basic to any civilization, has resurfaced as a legitimate moral concern. The dry bones of democracy are threatening resurrection.
All of this comes at an enormous cost. The suffering of the hurricane and flood victims is just the beginning of the staggering debt we have accumulated through our moral complacency. It includes the suffering of tens of thousands of Iraqis sent to their deaths by American tax-payers, environmental destruction on a global scale, cultural annihilation from Baghdad to Darfur to New Orleans, and everywhere the burden of poverty: violence, crime, neglect, discrimination. This debt is simply the price of admission to our new sobriety, which must become a genuine accounting for our myriad failures as stewards of this time and place, and a realistic assessment of what is now possible and necessary given the damage that's been done.
What I'm saying is that our work is just getting started. We all bear our part in the catastrophe which has been this American way of life, of which the Bush administration has simply been the worst excess, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina its most visible consequence. Cleaning up after that disaster - that's the task that lies ahead.