Monday, September 26, 2005

The difference between two tragedies

The Jakarta Post
26 September 2005

Thang D. Nguyen, Jakarta

On Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists attacked America, and a total of 2,749 Americans died that day.

Roughly four years later, on Aug. 29, 2005, America was hit again, this time by a natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina ripped through the city of New Orleans and its neighboring areas, followed by heavy floods.

So far, Hurricane Katrina has killed about 500 Americans, but the final death toll can be up to 10, 000. Meanwhile, it has left about 300,000 people homeless.

While Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina are different in many ways, they both are tragic -- in the sense that they took many innocent lives and that they should not have happened at all.

There is, nevertheless, another striking difference between these two tragedies: The responses from the Bush Administration to them both, respectively.

Shortly after Sept. 11 happened, the Bush Administration was quick to send U.S. National Guards, firefighters, police, and other federal resources to Ground Zero for help.

In contrast, the Bush Administration's response to Katrina has been more than disappointing. As Hurricane Katrina and its floods engulfed New Orleans, thousands of victims called and waited for help in vain, while many others disappeared or died.

So far, commentators and many victims of Hurricane Katrina themselves have blamed the slow response on racism.

Since most prominent victims of Hurricane Katrina in and around New Orleans were poor African Americans, this criticism is understandable. It is, however, not necessarily the reason why the Bush Administration's response to Katrina has been inadequate.

Consider the following comparisons.

Whereas Ground Zero is in New York City, America's symbol of prosperity, pride, and freedom, the hardest hit city by Hurricane Katrina is New Orleans, just another part of America's colonial history.

Compared to the almighty Twin Towers, or the World Trade Center, what is the French Quarter? If anything, gone are its good old jazz bars!

Whereas New York City is, among other things, the center (and symbol) of America's economic might, New Orleans itself is just an old city with a poor population.

To be sure, the Gulf of Mexico is home to some of America's energy infrastructure, which produces (or refines) about a quarter of its oil and gas. The damages that Hurricane Katrina has on the U.S. economy, however, are "modest," as Ben Bernanke, the chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisors, said on Aug. 31, compared to those caused by Sept. 11.

But most importantly, whereas Sept. 11 was an act of terror, Katrina was a natural disaster, albeit a severe one.

For days after the Twin Towers collapsed, there was nothing on CNN but Sept. 11. To be sure, there were news about Katrina on American TV channels, but the reporting was not on a 24/7 basis, as was the case after Sept. 11 happened.

And because of this so-called CNN effect, Americans -- and people around the world, for that matter -- will remember Sept. 11 forever.

But, by the same token, how many people will remember Hurricane Katrina a few years from now -- seriously?

In other words, the public will remember and consider only what the media shows important; everything else doesn't matter.

And now that the camera has moved on and the water in New Orleans is receding, will the Bush administration show the same kind of support, financial and otherwise, in rebuilding it as it has done in New York City?

Meanwhile, one thing is certain: While the Bush Administration took America to war with the al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the name of "justice" for the victims of Sept. 11 and, later, used it as a pretext to invade Iraq, it cannot do the same to Mother Nature.

Furthermore, while they cost Washington billions of dollars, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq do bring economic benefits to the U.S. economy.

These benefits include: The U.S. government's orders of weapons and military-related items; fat contracts that American construction companies have won in Iraq; and, of course, oil.

But rebuilding New Orleans and other Katrina-affected areas will only be a cost to Washington and its corporate supporters, not benefits -- none whatsoever.

So, the message goes: The lives that Sept. 11 took are more important than those that Hurricane Katrina did. And if responding to a tragedy does not benefit corporate America, frankly speaking, the Bush Administration doesn't give a damn!

The writer is a Jakarta-based columnist. His writing can be read at