Don't look back. Like some video star who walks away from explosions with nary a glance over her shoulder, my mother taught me that this was the way to deal with the traumas of life. She survived her youth with men who drowned their suffering in alcohol by moving forward, moving forward. In this way she created a new life for herself -- and for me -- with my step-father. Never turn around, I can still feel her whisper, lest the inferno blind you, turn you to salt, or rob you of your love.
But is this always the wisest approach for individuals, much less nations? I saw what happened to men torn apart by unexamined pain. They poisoned others' lives as much as their own. Obsession with past hurts is unhealthy for sure, but so is the silence that does not allow for healing, for any chance at self-acceptance, or forgiveness.
Consider New Orleans. Don't look back is a common ethos of its Katrina survivors. Attempting to rectify, or even acknowledge injustices is risky, for it feels like ripping open the rawest wounds. Even if a survivor disagrees with the turn-the-page approach, the weight of reconstructing one's family, home and livelihood can be a crushing one, for credit cards aren't all that's maxed out in the recovering Gulf Coast. Day after day, what energy is left to sort through the anger and shame that rose up as wickedly as the surge waters through sewer grates?
Sometimes it takes outsiders to help. Currently, the FBI is investigating alleged police homicides and civil rights violations committed in those nether days after the levees breached. Justice for the victimized will always be a healing balm, but we need more than convictions. We need truth. Truth that might be difficult for whites to hear, for blacks to hear, for all of us to hear. Truth that might be difficult for rich people to hear. For the government leaders then and now. We need deep examinations of our systems and of our personal fears that lead us to fail each other so profoundly. How else can we hope to make peace with one another?
The White House announced last week that the president will travel to New Orleans in mid-October. Many of us have competing ideas as how best to harness presidential power in the service of rebuilding the city. However, the president can bring the peace prize home early if he does one thing: announce the creation of an 8/29 Commission.
Activists, including Sandy Rosenthal of Levees.org, have long called for such a commission. Since this is still an idea and not a mission, yet, its marching orders are still to be determined. I imagine the panel as equal parts 9/11 Commission, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Medical Examiner of the body politic. The panel should be tasked to establish once and for all why the levees failed, and allow us a good look at all of the pre-existing conditions present at the time of the trauma. This panel should also shine glory on those who rose to their challenges (Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries, the US Coast Guard, heroic medical personnel and a 1000 churches come to mind). Like South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this is not about putting people in jail, or widespread wealth distribution. This is about hearing people out. This is about creating a shared understanding of events. This is about agreeing on the wisest use of public resources to improve security and prosperity for all. This is about having a political class that knows how to take responsibility, not one that invariably runs from blame and liability.
I have faith that when the President travels to New Orleans this month, he will do more than visit a school, check out a levee, and walk the Lower Ninth. If the President creates the 8/29 Commission, he will prove to us that we are not a nation forever doomed to sweep problems under the rug until the floor rots beneath us. He will initiate the hard work necessary to bring us peace.
For more on the 8/29 Commission, please visit Levees.org.
If you know someone who has suffered a Katrina-related death, including indirect deaths, consider contributing their name to the Hurricane Katrina Deceased Victims List