"Know that you are human and not godlike. Know that you are mortal and subject to the whim of powers far beyond your control." These injunctions of the Ancient Greeks were meant to instill the virtue of reverence-the capacity to feel awe, respect, and shame. Without reverence, we are prone to arrogance, to poor leadership, to denial of reality, and to unnecessary tragedies that litter human history and culture.

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:

  • Despite an extraordinary warning from the National Hurricane Center that Katrina "could cause human suffering incredible by modern standards," FEMA dispatched only a quarter of its urban search-and-rescue teams to the area; no workers were even sent into New Orleans until after the hurricane had passed on Monday Aug. 29. On Wednesday, amidst escalating looting and violence, Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, held a news conference announcing that he was "extremely pleased with the response" of the federal government.

  • By the time President Bush cut his vacation short, most of the city was under 10-20 feet of water, there was widespread looting, and only 3,800 national guard troops were on activity duty in the entire state of Lousiana. On Friday, Sept. 2, Bush finally landed in New Orleans and spoke at the airport; he joked about his boozing days in the Big Easy. Speaking to journalists and cameramen on the runway before he left, Bush promised not to forget what he'd seen. Unphotographed and out of the cameras' range were thousands of sick and dying people at a makeshift infirmary inside the terminal.

  • When the evacuation efforts in New Orleans turned to recovering the dead, news coverage was blacked out "for dignity's sake".

  • When the U.S. Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team looked for a place to house and identify the dead, they picked former leper colony outside of Baton Rouge.

  • 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?
    Read more on page 2 >>

    _Related Features
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  • From Arrogance to Compassion
  • Black Faith and Katrina's Victims
  • Awe, respect, and shame-in the days since Katrina struck, these are precisely the feelings missing from many of our leaders, when we need them the most. Instead, we've witnessed denial of danger, tragic hesitation to act, segregation of the dead, and the censorship of uncomfortable images.

    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.
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