Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Katrina: A Breaking of the American Promise

Sen. Evan Bayh: Katrina: A Breaking of the American Promise

Sunday was the fourth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11th -- attacks that opened our eyes to the dangerous world that we live in, made real the existence of evil, and shook our national complacency forever.

Two weeks ago, we witnessed a tragedy of equal proportions -- not a terrorist attack but an act of nature, made more tragic by the violation of the bedrock American value of community and the fundamental promise implicit between our government and our people.

Our government failed at one of the most basic functions it has -- providing for the physical safety of our citizens -- and in so doing raised basic questions about who we are as a people, what makes us special, and whether our leaders understand.

Among the horrors, we also witnessed the best of America. There were countless episodes of tremendous heroism and heartwarming generosity. Americans from across the country rose up to play the role the government should have played by giving money, food, water, clothes, even opening their homes to complete strangers. That's the best of America.

There will be a time for the hearings and fact-findings and commissions. Those investigations must be independent so that we can get to the bottom of what happened and why. And those responsible must be held accountable for their mistakes, not promoted or awarded medals.

However, the failures speak to something deeper -- the breaking of a promise between our basic institutions of government and the American people who have created those institutions.

The fact is scores, maybe hundreds of lives were lost not simply because people didn't leave, or because the levees were not strengthened, but because after the storm our institutions of government failed them. And that's just not right.

Many of us never thought we would live to see the day when tens of thousands of our fellow citizens would be left for nearly a week to fend for themselves without food, without water, and stranded on rooftops.

This is a moment where we have to step back and revisit the idea of what America is really all about.

People came here because of that idea -- they came here because of the promise that everyone has an opportunity to aspire to something greater and if you work hard and play by the rules, our government will stand up for you if you happen to fall down on your luck.

What happened last week in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast broke faith with that idea in a profound way.

The truth about America today is that our institutions -- and particularly this Administration -- have broken their fundamental promise to the people they were elected to serve.

It's unfortunate, but perhaps not surprising from leaders ideologically hostile to the institutions that they lead. The answer to the challenges we confront today can't be big government, but it also cannot be no government. And above all, it cannot be incompetent government.

What we are seeing in New Orleans is the result of a series of misjudgments and misdirected priorities that have all produced an increasingly tragic result -- a people unprotected by their own government -- a government that no longer embodies our most basic and most precious values. From soldiers without armor to protect them in battle to children with no health care to protect them against disease to corporate employees with no pensions to guide them in their elder years. This administration has sown the seeds of indifference and division for too long and now we are all reaping the whirlwind.

Americans have always prized individuality -- it is part of our national DNA, but America is a community that draws strength from the sum of our people and has always known that the total of that sum is worth far more than its individual parts.

We can only do so much alone to maximize our freedom, to make the most of our liberties. Sometimes we must act together. It is what separates us from the Law of the Jungle. It's what makes us special and different from other countries too.

As a civil rights leader once said, we may have arrived on these shores in different ships but we're all in the same boat now.

Last week we were not all in the same boat. There were too many left adrift. Too many of our boats were left behind.

This is not the America we have known for more than two hundred years and not the America we should aspire to be.

Our government broke a promise. It did not keep faith with our values. It's time for us to renew that commitment -- to make a new promise -- to the people who went through the horror of last week and to each and every American.

We must providing funding to school districts that accept displaced children.

We must provide medical assistance for all displaced victims without forcing them to wade through endless red tape.

We must rebuild and strengthen the levee system in New Orleans as quickly as humanly possible -- which should have been done years ago -- so that its people will never again face the calamity of last week.

The times demand leaders that understand that the true test of leadership is not how we accentuate the differences among us, but instead how we reconcile them, how we forge principled consensus, and how we find common ground.

We need leaders who appeal to us to think about something other than narrow self-interest, but instead focus upon the greater good.

So in the wake of the fourth anniversary of 9/11, let us say a prayer for the victims in New York and for those along the Gulf Coast and most of all, let us say a prayer for our country.