At the breakfast buffet in my French Quarter hotel a few weeks ago, a couple of U.S. soldiers lined up with weapons slung over their shoulders. Very annoying! As if guns and scrambled eggs go together. But I'd seen it before, almost this exact scene.

It had happened in Kinshasa, capital of Congo (formerly Zaire), where AK47-toting troops routinely lined up for the hotel grub. The only difference is that a hand grenade fell from a Congolese soldier's belt one morning in Kinshasa and rolled across the buffet floor. Oh. And another difference: The Congolese soldiers were black, while the U.S. soldiers were white. Yet both were doing the same thing, and looking so "third world."

I've been thinking about that pernicious little phrase -- "the third world" -- a lot lately, for it has been bandied about by commentators, journalists, ordinary people, even some New Orleans evacuees themselves. They've all been bemoaning how the crisis wrought by Hurricane Katrina reduced a bold and magical American city to "third-world" status, or had been managed as if by a bungling "third-world" government. Black folk said it. White folk said it. So many people said it so often that I realized this was some kind of civic moment, some kind of revelation of a fundamental, albeit troubling, American value.

Put simply, it is this: We think we are better. And we don't like it one bit when we look like we're not better.

Judging by the post-Katrina dialogue, all kinds of Americans are deeply offended by the soggy unraveling of a major American city. So we deploy that label as shorthand for all that is undesirable, even shameful, about some lower level of human existence spread out over a swath of the globe that is black and brown. I strongly suspect that some other choice of words would have been used if more white New Orleanians had been seen wading through the flooded city, languishing on roof tops and being warehoused in awful arenas.

By the time I arrived in New Orleans two weeks after the levees broke, just about all of the city's residents were gone, and I'm ashamed to say that "third world" did indeed enter my mind as I took in the rubble-filled streets, the muddied buildings and cars, the comings and goings of military and FEMA vehicles. Change the flag from the United States stars and stripes to the United Nations sky blue, and those trucks could just as well have been relief vehicles plying the rough roads of some war-torn foreign locale.

"It looks like Kinshasa," I told my husband in a stunned phone call on my arrival in the city. That was my knee-jerk response.

I should have known better. I have been to the hovels and huts of the impoverished world. I've seen its refugees scratching for food and powerless to help their sick, starving children. I should have known that it would take a whole lot more than Katrina to reduce our American life of plenty to the empty want that passes for life in so much of the rest of the world. As badly as New Orleans has been pummeled, it is an insult to those suffering people around the globe for us to compare New Orleanians' travails to their own.

But "the third world" was on the lips of many Americans nonetheless, and the more I heard it, the more it sounded like an expression of our national anxiety -- that the line we imagine separates us from lesser nations can be breached so quickly, can render our national superiority vulnerable.

The outraged talk was tinged with that old "manifest destiny" stuff of the 19th century, tinged with the idea of American exceptionalism, as if awful things aren't supposed to happen to us -- and not only because we have more sophisticated technology, health, communications, banking and transportation systems than the rest of the world. Rather, awful things aren't supposed to happen here because, well, they're supposed to occur in those unfortunate places where floods and coups and famine always seem to be happening anyway. That would be "the third world."

If a world is "third," then it falls somewhere behind first and second. It is something less. And Americans seemed incensed that our government did not shield this country from that lesser status. I have unpacked this issue and pondered its components for days. I have long been peeved by the first world-third world equation. Having lived in Africa for a time, I've seen how easily and reflexively the so-called first world dismisses the third. To me, it's like racism. One group defining itself by what it is not -- not like that other lesser group. Americans seem to want affirmation: We are not the third world; we don't fall into chaos; we don't descend into dysfunction; we don't do genocide (at least not lately). We are better.

So the question that bothers me is whether the depth of suffering brought about by Katrina's floods offended our humanity -- or our sense of national superiority.

This being America, a variety of impulses were probably jumbled all together. So perhaps I am splitting hairs in trying to parse this. And no pollster could actually get respondents to confess that they were more concerned about the nation's image than about the nation's people.

But different impulses yield different results. Genuine humanitarian concern can spark action, propel correction. Hurt national pride, on the other hand, can be salved in lots of ways that may have nothing to do with helping Katrina's poorest victims. I mean, for how many years has dire American poverty been ignored while America's sense of superiority marches on?

The ongoing General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center, perhaps the most authoritative measure of American thinking, shows that 40 percent of its respondents believe that "America is a better country than most other countries." (The 2004 survey doesn't exactly define better, so just what is being measured is not clear.) Also, 73.5 percent of the survey respondents described themselves as "very proud" of the nation's armed forces. That may explain why, in Katrina's aftermath, Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, head of the military's Joint Task Force Katrina, assumed heroic stature. Admiringly dubbed the "John Wayne dude" by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Honore arrived in New Orleans with the troops -- of which so many Americans are proud -- and seemed to represent American power, American can-do.

Another item from the General Social Survey is worth noting. Only 25.6 percent of the survey's respondents described themselves as "very proud" of America's "fair and equal treatment of all groups in society" (up from 16.8 percent in 1996), while 46.6 percent said they were "somewhat proud." Another 18.1 percent said they were ''not very proud," and 5.7 percent said they were ''not proud at all."

Of course, if one requires evidence of our nation's usual cleavage over race, look no further than the debates over words such as "third world" and "refugee" -- a term normally used to describe people crossing international borders. And look no further than the recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showing that 63 percent of blacks believe that racial inequality explains the problems with the hurricane relief effort, while 70 percent of whites reject such a notion.

This newspaper documented the depth of this black-white disconnect years ago, in a 1992 opinion poll published with one of my articles back when I covered the subject of race. I will never forget the results, for they seemed to chart an almost desperate desire among whites not to believe that this society's ongoing discrimination had a negative impact on blacks. Those were the seemingly contradictory results of the poll: White prejudice against blacks was widespread, many of the white respondents agreed, but they did not believe it was an impediment to black progress. Go figure.

If you think about it long enough, another issue arises. If we as a nation believe that we now have seen the third world in our own midst, does that mean we will have greater empathy for and engagement with the cast-aside communities around the globe? And if we've suddenly realized how deep our national pockets of poverty really are, does this mean that we as a nation will correct that shameful problem? I do wonder.

Judging from the bitterly contested political, racial and economic ground on which Katrina's recovery now stands, it would seem that our brush with the third world has yet to foster a new American empathy.

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Lynne Duke, a reporter for the Style section, was The Post's Johannesburg bureau chief for four years. She is the author of "Mandela, Mobutu, and Me: A Newswoman's African Journey" (Doubleday).

A place, not a label: After covering Congo's civil war, above, and New Orleans's devastation, the author questions the use of "third world" as a shorthand for all that is undesirable.