"Dazed and Desperate," read the huge banner headline in the Baltimore Sun on Thursday, and the pictures on television and in the newspapers of those shattered, tearful faces in New Orleans conveyed the suffering wrought by this biblical torment of wind and water.
It has been a particular American nightmare, too -- with human aftershocks that connect with what the sociologist Gunnar Myrdal once described as our "original sin." Judging from the images on television and in newspapers, the New Orleans residents suffering most from the hurricane are black. As looting spread in the desperate city, many of the gun-toting cops and private citizens pictured confronting the looters were white.
Those charged images compound the natural tragedy. That's why it was wonderful to see the big picture on the front page of Thursday's Post that showed a white man carrying to safety a black man who couldn't walk. It was a message that we aren't prisoners of racial stereotypes. When tragedy strikes, we either pull together or we descend into a hell of everyone for himself.
Disasters such as Katrina remind us of the importance of the collective institutions that we Americans sometimes disdain. If you're stranded on a rooftop, you're not waiting for "a thousand points of light," as George H.W. Bush liked to describe America's network of private charities. You're waiting for the Coast Guard or the police or the National Guard. Indeed, in times of real crisis, our individual interests must be subordinated to collective ones. The government forces people to leave dangerous areas; it imposes order, sometimes at gunpoint. Private demands have to give way to collective solutions.
This thin thread of social order was evoked by the Rev. Samuel Lloyd, the new dean of Washington National Cathedral, in a July 10 sermon after the terrorist bombings in London. "I remember hearing years ago that wise commentator Eric Sevareid on the evening news declare that civilization is only about seven meals away from anarchy," Lloyd said. "What I took him to mean was that the harmony of our common life is a tenuous thing, and we human beings can quickly turn on each other when we panic."
One lesson for me of the immense disaster that's unfolding along the Gulf Coast is that Americans need to value our collective institutions more. Through the Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II administrations, there has been a growing national ethic of private entrepreneurship. This celebration of private life has brought many economic benefits, but over time it has undermined our public life.
Institutions such as labor unions that seek to bargain collectively have grown weaker, as pay has become more tied to individual performance. That idea that we should each be able to negotiate our own slice of pie was the intellectual driver for President Bush's plan to create private Social Security accounts. The rationale for this policy is understandable -- it's part of the spirit of our self-reliant age. But to the extent that it erodes the collective safety net, it's a mistake.
A warning about the dangers of shifting too much risk onto the shoulders of individuals came in a fascinating chapter in the latest Global Financial Stability Report by the International Monetary Fund. The IMF examined what it called "the transfer of market risk to the household sector" from bigger, risk-pooling financial institutions and cautioned that the shift makes the system more vulnerable to shocks.
In the past, noted the IMF, intermediaries such as banks, insurance companies and pension funds absorbed risks and cushioned people against the consequences of their own bad luck or bad decisions. But that has changed as big institutions shifted the risk to individuals, replacing fixed-rate mortgages with variable ones and defined-benefit pensions with 401(k)s. This change gives individuals more choices, but it makes them more vulnerable to sudden swings in interest rates or to financial catastrophes.
When a crisis does strike, warned the IMF, "there could be a political backlash demanding government support as an 'insurer of last resort.' " And of course that's just what is happening after Katrina. People who were unwise or unlucky enough to be caught in the disaster expect their fellow citizens, through the federal government, to help bail them out. And so they should.
This idea of collective security is obvious after a catastrophe such as Katrina. But it should be equally clear when we think about everyday disasters such as poor health, job loss or poverty. If this nightmare storm makes us think more about our dependence on each other when bad things happen -- and prods us to strengthen our collective safety net -- then it will have a silver lining indeed.