Washington is a thousand miles from New Orleans, but most of us have at least one post-hurricane "memory," one scene that plays and replays in our minds.

For my friend Tony, it's "the dead-body thing," the bloated, rotting corpses that -- more than a week after the storm -- still float languorously, lie draped over curbs or are nibbled on by vermin on New Orleans's streets. These scores of untended bodies suggest "a complete breakdown in everything we are supposed to do as civilized people," Tony says. "Even on the frontier, in the wilderness -- when somebody dies, we stop to bury the dead."

Shouldn't finding the living supersede interring those who've died? "This is America," Tony says. "Don't tell me we can't accomplish both."

A Virginia transportation executive I know keeps remembering FEMA chief Michael Brown speaking of thousands of flood victims who "unfortunately" might have perished because they didn't heed evacuation warnings. "By and large," says the executive, "this was not people choosing to stay in their beach homes."

Then there was the image Sunday conjured by New Orleans official Aaron Broussard. His voice breaking, Broussard described an elderly woman -- the nursing-home-bound mother of a city manager -- who phoned her son daily from the facility where floodwaters had trapped her. "Is somebody coming?" she kept asking her son. For four days straight, he assured her that, yes, somebody was coming to get her.

"And she drowned Friday night," Broussard said, covering his face with his hand as he sobbed. "She drowned Friday night."

Of all the scenes that fueled my weeklong grief and outrage, the image of this trapped woman dying in increments, inch by inch, enveloped by fetid water as her would-be saviors blundered and bickered, is the most heartbreaking.

We all have mothers. Could someone let ours die needlessly, inch by excruciating inch?

It always comes back to us -- to the experiences we've had that determine our interpretation of others' losses, that suggest what our responses might be. We'd never steal -- unless stolen food and water was all we could get for our children. As mourners, we often avoid watching our loved ones' remains being lowered into their graves.

Could we imagine them being exposed, eaten by rats?

This is, as my friend says, America. How did we get to this place?

Katrina's destructiveness mounted with stunning, focused rapidity. But life often transpires like that elderly woman's death -- in increments. Piece by piece in New Orleans, disparate elements coalesced into tragedy:

The federal government's clueless, agonizingly slow response. New Orleans officials' failure to evacuate the endangered. Funds that would have fortified the city's neglected levees diverted to homeland security and the war in Iraq. The thousands who ignored or didn't understand the warnings, or who lacked the resources to escape the danger.

Many U.S. citizens proceeded to the stadium where they'd been told to gather for evacuation -- and found that they'd been directed into hell. We saw what happened there.

Nobody sees the choices each of us makes to assemble -- invisibly, inch by mental inch -- our response to a tragedy. Photo by photo, word by word, judgment by judgment, we construct an opinion.

Everyone, we remind ourselves, has choices. Many were disgusted by those who chose to remain in the path of a Category 5 storm despite having the cars, cash and connections to flee. They had a point. But those "victims" were indistinguishable from thousands who had no means of evacuating. Others focused more on the comparatively few who chose to loot than on the thousands of law-abiding citizens whose patience was rewarded with hunger, filth, endangerment and death.

Choice is complicated. Like many Americans, I never "chose" to be born into a family with the schooling, discipline and income to support and educate me. I can't know what I would have become without them.

And yet I've still made knuckleheaded choices. Often, I've been saved from them by the systems and connections upon which the middle class -- like the flood-trapped college students whose resourceful parents got Jesse Jackson himself to rescue them -- rely.

When the levees broke, what systems helped New Orleans's poor?

We got to this place in America because long ago, people decided that some of their fellow citizens deserved less, and others got comfortable with them having it: less opportunity, less safe housing, less quality education, less protection by their government. The consequences of those decisions multiplied, fed on themselves.

They keep feeding.

Some events, no one would choose. What we can choose is our response to them, and to those forced to face these circumstances with less.

We can judge. We can blame. We can leave folks to their own devices. Or we can help.

Many black Americans -- think Kanye West -- couldn't help wondering whether the disproportionate blackness of Katrina's victims contributed to the federal government's sluggishness. I can't blame them.

Yet I can choose to recognize the streams of caring people, vast numbers of them white, who transported their boats, trucks, supplies and willing bodies into dangerous waters to be of assistance. We can all be grateful to millions more who are opening their checkbooks and homes to those in need.

Moment by moment, we choose: to open our hearts or slam them shut. To build systems that prevent future tragedies, or walls between neighbors that ensure their repetition. To love our fellow citizens or to fear them.

At this moment, Americans overwhelmingly are choosing love.

That's what I hope to remember.