With most of the nation and the world, I watched in shock and sadness as one of the greatest cities in the world nearly drowned. As the days wore on, I watched in anger and in hope as the two extremes of human behavior reared their heads above the waters.
First the good. Americans, with our characteristic generosity, have given much already. Financial contributions are pouring in just as the waters did. People have opened their homes to strangers. Churches are providing hot meals and shelter. Family, friends, and strangers have worked tirelessly to help those trapped in Atlantis escape. And the courage and sacrifice of the rescue workers is the noblest we’ve seen since that other awful September four years ago. And it’s not just Americans; generous people from around the globe are reaching out to help.
But even as so many people reached out to help friends, relatives, and strangers, others accepted little or no responsibility for helping themselves, or helped themselves to what was not theirs to take.
Televison captured able-bodied people demanding, “We want help!” While many citizens respond gratefully to their rescuers, others greet these brave and selfless workers with “What took you so long?” Bizarrely, some have even shot at rescuers. Then there are the looters, stealing everything from diapers to televisions.
While people from talking heads to New Orleans’ foul-mouthed Mayor blame the federal government for not responding quickly enough, little is mentioned about individual responsibility.
This is a country of freedom and opportunity. Every competent adult living in New Orleans chose, through either personal action or inaction, to live there. They knew, or should have known, that they were living in a submerged bowl of a city, protected only by levees built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane. Every adult who did not heed the repeated warnings to evacuate chose to stay and face Katrina. Those who lacked the family or finances they needed to help them leave entirely could have gone to the Superdome, instead of remaining in their own homes. In other words, they all bear some responsibility for being home when Katrina stormed in.
That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be rescued. As many should be rescued as possible. They should be rescued because human beings are created in the image of God, and have essential dignity and worth that cannot be alienated no matter how imprudently they behave. But as they’re rescued, they should have a sense of gratitute and remorse for the trouble and danger into which their irresponsibilty led others, not an ugly sense of entitlement to have others mitigate the consequences of their choices.
And they shouldn’t be looting. And that includes for food and diapers. Choosing to remain in the path of danger does not entitle one to steal from those who were more prudent, and as a result are not present to defend the fruits of their own labor.
The tax-payers who evacuated deserved to have their property protected by the law enforcement personnel whose salaries they pay. But instead, those officers were directed to let the looters loot, and to concentrate their efforts on rescuing people who shouldn’t have been there in the first place. And then the looting got worse, and escalated into more violence. Well, duh. When you let criminals run wild, they get wilder.
Regrettably, lost in all the blame-shifting is any recognition of the role of personal responsibility. As the history of the calamity called Katrina unfolds, I’m sure that there will be plenty of blame for all levels of government. But the real story isn’t the failure of government to protect people from the consequences of their own choices. The real story is that people have become so dependent that they expect just that kind of protection.