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How to Deal with a National Disgrace

Ruth Rosen argues for responding to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina with a revived commitment to common effort and true compassion.

When I was growing up, the world used to admire our nation for its uncanny ability to turn dreams into realities and its relentless determination to rescue people from nightmares. Intoxicated by America's "can do" attitude, my mother used to tell me, if there’s a will, there’s a way. She was right.

No more. Today, the United States looks like a pitiful stumbling giant. In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, commentators around the globe shake their heads and ask, how can the most powerful and wealthiest nation in the world fail to save its own citizens from degradation and death?

We know the reason: a failure of political will. We also know why so much federal incompetence has disgraced our country: George W. Bush’s ideological commitment to dismantle and privatize government services. The result? Hundreds of unnecessary deaths.

Yet our history reminds us that we are capable of performing miracles. After the 1906 earthquake, the nation quickly rallied to restore order and to provide housing. During the Great Depression, the government rescued the employed and the dislocated with federal programs that restored dignity to shattered lives. After World War II, Congress passed the GI Bills of Rights, which provided veterans with housing, paid their education, and gave them a reason to believe in a future. Fueled by cold war fervor, President John F. Kennedy promised that American astronauts would land on the moon by the end of the decade. They arrived right on time.

Despite his colossal failure in leadership, George W. Bush is not our only elected official. Now it’s up to the members of Congress to revive our national will to rebuild, rehabilitate, and reconstruct a vital region, a great city, and to give a helping hand to the people who lived there. Short-term relief, however, is only the first step. Congress must brandish a new political will and pass legislation that would accomplish what really needs to be done:

  • Enact a federal works program for the reconstruction of the affected communities and give displaced citizens priority for job training and employment;
  • Provide a check-off box on all income tax returns for donations to a rehabilitation fund for hurricane victims.
  • Create a Citizens Committee to oversee the reconstruction and rehabilitation program, which must include a significant number of displaced residents;
  • Provide all uninsured citizens with Medicare insurance, including psychological and psychiatric services, as needed.

And where, you may ask, will all these billions of dollars come from? The answer is obvious: forget about repealing the estate tax, don't even think about passing new tax cuts and repeal those cuts that have enhanced the wealth of a tiny minority of our country’s population.

The purpose of reviving this region is not to increase the profits of the private sector; it is to rescue the people and society that have been devastated by a natural disaster and government incompetence. Instead of greed, think compassion. Instead of defending the right to accumulate individual wealth, concentrate on helping the most vulnerable victims who need their government and its people to help them rebuild their lives.

Right now, Congress has the opportunity to do the right thing and stem the rapid decline of a nation that once performed miracles. Or, they can nickel and dime those who have lost everything and contribute to the unraveling of American society.

Remember barnraising? An entire community chipped in to help each individual family build a new life on the frontier. Well, its still takes a community to restore traumatized people and broken dreams. Are we still a can do nation? The answer, as we all know, is a matter of political will.

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