Responsible for the Wind
By Crispin Sartwell
If there is one cosmic lesson
to be drawn from events like Hurricane Katrina, it is that the world is morally
blank. It kills or caresses without regard to what we want or what we
deserve. It is an event, not an agent.
No fact of
our experience is more evident, is more richly or continuously affirmed. And no
fact of our experience is as hard to face or as elaborately falsified.
took about ten minutes for people - such as former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal,
wring in Salon - to start blaming the Bush administration: for global warming
that supposedly caused Katrina, for ignoring the Army Corps of Engineers when
they warned of dangers to the levy system, and just for being generally bad
people. But any serious attempt to grapple with the causation of this event
would take into account the entire history of the Mississippi river basin and
the development along it. It would take into account the selection of the site
of New Orleans and the historical poverty and corruption of the city and
state governments. It would take into account the incomprehensibly complex set
of atmospheric events that created Katrina and determined its route.
Blaming Bush for the weather is a symptom of the monomania of some of Bush's
opponents, but it's also an attempt to give the world as a whole some sort of
moral content. It's an attack on the administration, but also a perverse
worship of it, an animistic attribution of powers tantamount to omnipotence.
The view is bizarre, but it yields the satisfying sense that the world displays
a comprehensible moral order.
now be commissions of investigation. Memos will come to light predicting the
event with uncanny prescience. Somebody will resign. Of course, a thousand
disasters were being predicted simultaneously, and any event is predictable,
given that it has actually occurred. But the point of various investigations
will be to return us to a moral universe, to reconstruct the howling blank
destruction of the wind as an arena of agency.
The idea of
political responsibility for hurricanes is a humanized version of the religious
impulse to chalk up events like Katrina to God's will. One preacher apparently
said it was God's wrath at the American south for its slavery. Others no doubt
will preach New Orleans as Sodom, just as they preached that the AIDS epidemic
or 9.11 represented God's judgment against someone.
Such views make
the world satisfying in some sense, but they also make God into a kind of
indiscriminate terrorist. They show our desperation for meaning by essentially
abandoning any pretense of God's benevolence. For, whomever God is judging,
drowning whole regions - killing children and pets and preachers alike - is
hardly a technique that omniscience and omnipotence would select for sorting
the sinners from the saints.
religious scepticism associated with enlightenment figures such as Hume and
Voltaire was in part instigated by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which killed
as many as 100,000 people. The arbitrariness with which the universe dealt out
suffering and death compromised the moral comprehensibility of the world.
humanism of these figures - their optimism about the efficacy of human action
in a universe from which God had absconded, can mutate into a delusion of human
or at least state omniscience and omnipotence, in which any event can be
attributed to agency.
Bush administration to account for the hurricane is a religious expression. But
if deep inside you regard the government as a god, you're going to be very
disappointed with its performance.
to assign responsibility - whether to God or Dick Cheney - ill becomes
us. It is cowardly. The hard and honest response is to face the amorality
of the world and to take care of each other as best we can.