A few days ago, I stopped at a neighborhood lemonade stand to sample the wares of three young girls raising money for the Red Cross. With love and idealism in their shining eyes, they shared their excitement about a rumor that some of Hurricane Katrina’s victims might even actually be coming to their very own (upper-middle class) elementary school! Each child shared her warmest intentions for reaching out to any such newcomers with open arms.
Later that day I read a story about a poor, young black man who had made the decision to leave Louisiana forever for his new home of Michigan, where so many generous people had offered him job opportunities, housing, possessions, counseling, training and friendship.
How is it that we fall all over ourselves to help victims of distant disasters, when daily we overlook or shy away from the sad, disaffected children already in our midst, or from our own hopeless, desperate fellow-citizens living in hovels just miles away?
Catastrophes like Katrina force us to recognize that we are all the same, and that we must all pull together in our unpredictable, leaky little boats or drown separately. Katrina lifted us all over the many carefully-constructed barriers we have erected to defend ourselves against the unfamiliar and the frightening, and once again allowed our fundamental humanity to emerge.
Like people everywhere, Americans are at heart deeply caring, idealistic and generous. We believe in equality of opportunity. We want to help the poor. We welcome interracial harmony. We hate war.
Yet as soon as media coverage of 9/11 died down, as soon as the deadly tides of the tsunami subsided, all our self-serving demagogues and warmongers jumped right back onto the public airwaves and the net with their steady drumbeat of political hatred and shrill argument, once again stirring up all our doubts and fears.
They'll be back again, after Katrina, drumming up new terrors.
Confused and afraid, we repeatedly elect leaders who accept the status quo of separate and unequal neighborhoods and schools and services and pay and health in America. Confused and afraid, we wring our hands and mumble something about the poor always being with us, crossing our fingers that there but for the grace of God we won’t go down right along with them. Confused and afraid, we spend hundreds of billions of dollars yearly to send our armies to every corner of God’s once-green earth, to shoot complete strangers in the face beside their families, in the homes of their ancestors, in order to “protect our national interests”—leaving our citizenry bereft, with less than no money to spend on our own domestic challenges.
Every available statistic has shown that the chasm between rich and poor and black and white in America has widened and deepened. Yet many other countries have found very good ways to strengthen their economies, and to equitably distribute their wealth, goods, security, opportunity, education, health and jobs. Such exemplary nations have relatively inexpensive little militias which tend to stay home and mind their own businesses; not surprisingly, terrorists leave them alone in return.
Perhaps we need to let our own raging national terrors subside long enough to notice the enviable results of these other more peaceful nations. Perhaps we might reconsider adopting some of their social, economic and political approaches. Maybe we should reject all the clever, self-serving fear-based religious and political arguments we continually listen to, the ones that serve mostly to frighten us and separate us all further and further from one another. Maybe we need to spend more of our tax money lifting humanity out of poverty and racism, rather than wasting it on pushing distant cultures around and telling them how best to live their lives. Maybe instead of using bullets and bombs, we could create our own good example, for other nations, of what a compassionate and just democracy might look like.
America will someday once again be a proud land of peace and equal opportunity for all, but only when we commit to working together in faith, hope and love—and not in fear—to find compassionate political solutions to all our challenges both at home and abroad.