Thousands of black refugees sit along a sun-roasted New Orleans concrete overpass. Having waded through an urban swamp while wracked by hunger, thirst, and a desperate fear of dying, they appear at a loss for any further course, save waiting for the help that does not come. Miles to the east in Gulfport, Mississippi, parched, hungry, whites pick through stick-strewn heaps that, the day before, had been their homes.
Thousands are likely dead. Thousands more are dying. No-one knows for sure. On the burning hot overpass, an elderly black woman sits on the curb beside the shrouded body of her dead husband, having pleaded directly to several policemen for help as he lay dying – to no avail.
Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama had been, in the space of an hour, carved by Hurricane Katrina into tableaux of unimaginable human suffering, the like of which had never been seen before on American soil.
In New Orleans alone, 80,000 lives are unaccounted for and feared lost. A great American city had suffered through a complete and, perhaps, irreversible collapse.
Never more than now have the American people required a President of large and generous spirit to summon from us all a broader and better self. A President who, with unimpeachable integrity and largeness of vision, embraces us all, replete with all our differences and discontents - the newly bereaved, the destitute, and the homeless, as well as the more fortunate amongst us -called forward to make the victims whole again. Reforming us once and for all into one caring, sharing, people.
Thus was the bar of Presidential leadership set on Tuesday after Hurricane Katrina. Sadly, the bar is beyond the president’s reach.
Yesterday, alone in his small plastic window, the President viewed the carnage from Air Force One en route from Crawford to Washington. His distance from the pain on the ground was emblematic, I thought, of a larger disability that appears to separate him from the rest of vulnerable humanity.
As I listened to him read his statement at the White House, I was as sure as one can be that he felt nothing, for there was nothing in his statement to evince the shallowest empathy for those whose lives had been changed forever.
We live in a dangerous and hurtful world. We need a leader who knows how to feel, as well as how to express feelings, for living, breathing, beings. Yesterday, the President, both literally and figuratively, flew above a sea of traumatized Americans he had sworn to faithfully serve.
The Katrina disaster is a watershed American event. How are we to comport ourselves?
Maybe it is time for thoughtful Americans to call the question: Is George W. Bush emotionally and intellectually suited for the Presidency of the most powerful nation on earth?
Randall Robinson is a social justice
advocate and author whose works
include The Debt – What America Owes