Our Lost Community

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By William Raspberry
Monday, September 19, 2005

Americans of a certain age like to remember when there was a thing called community. Not community as in such political blocs as the "gay community" or the "Hispanic community," but community as in neighbors who could count on each other in time of trouble.

A part of what is so dismaying about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is the discovery that in some important ways we can't count on each other. We prey on each other, as some of the carjackers, rapists and killers did in the Superdome and elsewhere. We accuse each other, as when we blame neglectful government officials at all levels for allowing the conditions that made Katrina so devastating -- or when we repeat the horror stories of bureaucratic bungling, tinged with race, that delayed (often fatally) the rescue of flooded New Orleanians.

But count on each other?

I remember the feeling after Pearl Harbor, though I was a small child at the time. Americans were united in commitment to fight and win, and united as well in their willingness to sacrifice for the cause.

Surely there was a similar sense of community in the decade before that, when America was ravaged by the Great Depression -- and four years ago, when 9/11 became a part of our national vocabulary.

We were all in it together. Few families escaped the Depression or went unscathed by the war. And while most Americans didn't know anyone who perished in the Sept. 11 attacks, we all felt vulnerable, knowing that terrorists could strike any of us at any time.

And for a time, Americans were in Katrina together. Hurricanes don't care who you are. But then we saw the victims of the post-hurricane flooding and stopped believing that it could happen to us.

I don't mean that anyone in authority said, in effect, those poor slobs are black and poor, so let's take our time. What is more likely is that officials were content to go by the book, to jockey for power, to wait for official authorization, to call in sick -- to act as bureaucrats -- precisely to the extent that they saw the victims as "others" rather than as full-fledged members of their community.

The loss of our sense of community goes well beyond New Orleans, of course. We are just about to confirm a new chief justice. It's no libel on John Roberts to say his nomination is divisive. I think it was meant to be -- not because the president who nominated him enjoys division but because the political culture practically mandates pushing for maximum partisan advantage. (It seems not to occur to anyone that it might be an unhealthy thing, in an electorate split virtually down the red-blue middle in the past two elections, to drive the Supreme Court definitively toward one side.)

But it isn't just partisan advantage that erodes community. So does inequality of sacrifice. Franklin Roosevelt might have had a tougher time preparing America for war if he had appeared unseemly eager to help his pals in the armaments and munitions business. (A Halliburton subsidiary that already has been criticized for its reconstruction work in Iraq has landed a fat contract to do repair work at Gulf Coast Navy and Marine facilities damaged by Katrina. 'Tis an ill wind . . .) Don't blame it all on government, however. Part of our loss of community may be explained by the simple fact that we don't put down deep roots as individuals and families because we don't stay put the way we used to. How many of your friends live in their parents' home towns?

And if home town is such a nebulous concept, should we be surprised that serious thought is being given to rebuilding New Orleans as a city full of charming old-style houses, with railed balconies and lovely verandas -- but empty of the "blight" of poor people?

The idea -- fortunately not yet the prevailing one -- seems to be that the poor would stay where they've been temporarily relocated. Or maybe just disappear. Where is the "community" in that?

willrasp@washpost.com


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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