Following news coverage of the catastrophe wrought by Katrina, I've been struck by the lengths to which important federal politicians, officials and even journalists went to avoid confronting the full realities of death, suffering, decay, and poverty. Here are just a few examples of denial and insensitivity:
Without question, the absence of reverence compounded this American tragedy. As Paul Woodruff writes in his wonderful book "Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue" (Oxford, 2001), "Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control-God, truth, justice, nature, even death." Reverence, according to Woodruff, "is the well-developed capacity to have the feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have."
Why don't Americans respect the dead?
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Both the ancient Greeks and ancient Confucianism emphasized reverence because it is essential for good leadership, and because it helps hold society together by acknowledging that all humans are limited and vulnerable to death. Reverence can go a long way toward easing the divisions between victor and vanquished, rich and poor, the living and the dead.
For at least the past two centuries, the incredible powers of modern science and technology have fed the fantasy that all human problems are solvable, that suffering and mystery will give way to knowledge and mastery. The illusion of control-whether political, scientific, or technological-leads to arrogance, complacency, and lack of compassion for the powerless.
In the United States, the idea of reverence is further muted by the myth of American exceptionalism-that we are removed from Old World and Third World destinies, that we are safe and exempt from the tragedies of history and nature.
Hurricanes cannot be controlled by human beings, but we can feel the awe and respect for nature's power and take appropriate precaution. Climate change cannot be controlled by human beings, but respect for scientific truth about global warming can lead to responsible political, economic, and personal action. Not all human beings can be rescued, but genuine respect and care for the poor and vulnerable can result in more justice and compassionate solidarity.
Did politics alone motivate President Bush to avoid the sick and the dying? Sitting and visiting with them would clearly have brought more truth, pain, and healing to the American public. Was it merely ignorance and bureaucracy that caused Bush and FEMA officials to hesitate when decisive action was called for? We saw little hesitation when Bush decided to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet overconfidence and lack of reverence for truth have left America weakened on both fronts in the war on terrorism.
It may well be an accident that many of the dead are being housed at an old leper colony; and physicians at the giant makeshift mortuary in St. Gabriel, Louisiana, are clearly taking their responsibilities seriously. But excluding media coverage of recovering the dead "for dignity's sake" is clearly a combination of political damage control and a deep misunderstanding of what respect for the dead entails.
How will we pay our respects to those who died in this disaster? We can begin to respect those who died in this national catastrophe by listening to them. Each will have her own story. But collectively, they will tell us we should be ashamed of ourselves: for leaving behind those who are black and poor; for failing to acknowledge and take action against known risks; for putting politics above compassion and human solidarity. They will say that we lack reverence for nature, truth, and death.
Reverence does not require compliance, passivity, or mere submission. It is often equated with religion, but certain kinds of religious righteousness are irreverent in their triumphal claims to know the mind and will of God.
Sometimes, reverence requires outrage that cuts through air-brushed political performances. For example, On Sept. 1, CNN's Anderson Cooper interrupted Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu as she began thanking federal officials for their recovery efforts. Cooper interjected that he'd seen dead bodies floating in the streets for the last four days. "And to listen to politicians thanking each other . . . you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated. . . . because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours."
Now that's reverence for the dead--cutting through the denial, media filters, and political agendas that crowd out the awe, respect, and shame needed to call us to our deepest humanity in this hour of national tragedy.