TCS Daily


Katrina and the Political Waves

By Lee Harris - September 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Rescuers will still be salvaging bloated bodies from debris of New Orleans when the nation commemorates the fourth anniversary of the last catastrophe that focused the world's attention on America, 9/11. Whether the death toll from Katrina exceeds that killed by the terrorists four years ago may not be known for a while, though the numbers that are currently being thrown about in the media suggest that it may be three or four or five times as great. One thing is already certain, however: Katrina will have a profound impact on the way Americans think about their government, just as 9/11 did -- only Katrina will almost certainly move public opinion in the opposite direction from the way 9/11 moved it -- with consequences that are, for the moment, foreseeable.

In the days immediately following 9/11, the vast majority of Americans felt that our government should be given whatever power it needed in order to protect us from future attacks of terrorism. The general sense of the nation was that we were facing an unprecedented crisis, and that the only way that we could deal with this crisis was by granting to our leaders whatever discretionary powers they considered necessary in order to prevent the reoccurrence of future terror attacks.

The foundation of this expansion in the power of the central government was an implicit social contract. The American people allowed their leaders greater discretionary powers, but only so long as these newly granted powers were used to protect and defend our citizens from attack, just as the ancient Romans permitted a dictator to be appointed during an emergency crisis, but only for the purpose of saving the Republic from the threat at hand.

Whenever a free people bestow extraordinary discretionary powers on their leaders, they do so not to lessen their civic freedom, but to secure their safety in a time of peril. And this is a fact that we must take into account if we are to understand the shock and outrage felt by so many Americans as they waited for the federal government they had entrusted with emergency powers to come to the rescue in the face of the bona fide emergency named Katrina, only to wait and wait, and then wait some more.

Because Americans had bestowed so much new power on the federal government, in order to protect them from terrorism, they naturally assumed that this discretionary power would be tapped at the first appearance of any genuine state of emergency. After all, Americans authorized the federal government immense new powers, precisely so that red-tape and bureaucratic obstacles could be swept away in face of a serious life-and-death crisis. Yet when that crisis came, Americans discovered that while they had given the state extraordinary powers to protect them, the state had no clue how to use these powers for that purpose. Americans thought they were empowering central government in order to make it efficient, agile, and swift in response; in fact, they were merely bloating it with additional bureaucracies and men of such startling mediocrity that they could only have been appointed by one another.

As a result, Katrina has virtually forced Americans to question the competence, foresight, and good judgment of those in positions of governmental authority and trust. 9/11 made most Americans believe that a strong central government was necessary to protect and defend them from catastrophic terror attacks, but Katrina has left them wondering what is the point of so much discretionary power if the men who possess it lack the wisdom to use it.

In short, in the post-9/11 world, the federal government was looked upon as a bulwark that stands strong; in the post-Katrina world, it is seen as a levee that failed.

That, however, is how history works; before we can understand the epoch we are living in, another bursts in upon us out of the blue. This happened with 9/11, and now again with Katrina. It is now anyone's guess where we go from here.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.

To see more of the extensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina from TCS, click here.

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