Ancrene Wiseass

A would-be medievalist holds forth on academia, teaching, gender politics, blogging, pop culture, critters, and whatever else comes her way.

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Yes, this really is yet another blog by a disillusioned grad student. I sympathize, but that's just the way it has to be. For hints as to what my bizarre alias means, click here and here and, if needed, here and here. To get a sense of what I'm up to, feel free to check out the sections called "Toward a Wiseass Creed" and "Showings: Some Introductory Wiseassery" in my main blog's left-hand sidebar. Please be aware that spamming, harassing, or otherwise obnoxious comments will be deleted and traced.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

9/11 and Katrina: Degrees of Separation

Like many people, I’ve been thinking, today, about 9/11. I’ve been remembering how I learned what was going on while poking around in a shop in Dublin’s Temple Bar; that I thought the radio broadcast I heard was a particularly vivid movie trailer for the first five minutes; that when realization finally dawned, I stumbled out into the street and into a nearby pub to watch SkyNews replay footage of what had already, by then, happened in Manhattan.

I remember being stranded in Ireland as U.S. airspace was shut down, beginning to run out of money, not having internet or phone access so I could check in with friends and family at home, and being alone on a deserted university campus. I remember thinking that World War III had just broken out and that maybe I wouldn’t get to come home for months or even years.

Later, once I’d managed to make contact, I remember worrying about my parrot, Cyrano, locked up in his cage with only the food and water my roommate had left him as she fled in terror from the helicopters hovering our neighborhood, which was all too close to bomb-worthy Big City landmarks. I remember wondering whether I’d see some of my friends again, since Big City was reportedly one of the terrorists’ favored targets. I remember thinking I was probably safer than everyone at home, and I remember how horrible that felt; I wanted to share both the grief and the danger with my own people.

I remember standing inside Newgrange the next day, looking at the huge stone basins that used to hold the remains of the honored dead and weeping in the dark. I remember crying like a child on the train down to Cork when every vehicle in Ireland paused to observe five minutes’ silence for the victims of New York, Washington, and Flight 93.

I remember feeling helpless and heartbroken. I remember feeling like a refugee.

As I’ve looked at pictures of Katrina victims during the last week, I’ve been reminded of my post-9/11 pseudo-refugee status and of how much more fortunate I was than many of these true refugees have been. I might not have been able to go home for a while, and I might have been frightened about what I would find when I did. But I had a place to stay. I had food and water. I could get clean. I only had to confront images of death and destruction, not the reeking, smoldering, floating reality of it.

I feel as though I’ve spent the last week traumatized, as though my snappishness can’t just be chalked up to my intense workload, as though my inability to focus has something to do with how I’ve been mourning over Katrina and what it means that, once again, we failed to protect our own.

I’m not the only person who’s been drawing parallels:

1) "It took a day or two after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast to understand that it could affect our feelings about what happened at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and in rural Pennsylvania. After all, the people who died on Sept. 11 were murdered by other human beings. Katrina's malevolence was only a metaphor, no matter how damaging its winds. But by the time the hurricane died down and the floodwaters stopped rising, it became clear that this hurricane would force us to revise 9/11, which, until now, had defined the limits of tragedy in America." (New York Times editorial)

2) "The government's response to Katrina—like the failure to anticipate that terrorists would fly into buildings on 9/11—was a failure of magination." (Newsweek, in a long article titled “How Bush Blew It.”)

3) Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.: [After Katrina, as on 9/11] "we once again find ourselves asking, 'How could this have happened?' The answer is painful, but it must be acknowledged: we simply were unprepared."

4) Howard Fineman: "History doesn’t repeat itself, but there are political echoes of 9/11 sounding loudly all over the Gulf Coast, and, for the most part, the comparisons between catastrophes in two iconic cities — New York and New Orleans — aren’t likely to help boost public regard for the presidency of George W. Bush."

5) Dave Pollard: What do 9/11 and Katrina have in common, and what is that doing to our heads?

--They were both preventable, but the cost and challenge of prevention were (and are) massive, almost overwhelming
--Unlike the tsunami, both 9/11 and Katrina represented or brought out the worst in humanity, and raised serious questions about human nature (negligence to prevent a predictable disaster, incompetence in dealing with it, and exploitation of the misery afterwards)

. . . .

Lakoff has explained how hard it is for us to understand and process anything that doesn't fit with our 'frames', and how desperately we tend to cling to our personal worldviews. Events like these, I would suggest, come dangerously close to shattering our frames and destroying our worldviews, and to some extent make us, at least temporarily, slightly insane. To the progressive, giving up on the view that most people are good, caring, honest, and fair is sickening. To the conservative, giving up on the possibility that if you live a diligent, moral life you have a chance of being safe and secure, is equally sickening. These worldviews are our levees, and when they break, the result is profound and destructive."