09/03/2005 09:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Katrina: A New Untouchable Class

Will the Katrina refugee populations building up in Houston and elsewhere become a new untouchable class? Will the experiences of these people be integrated into the national dialog or will we distance ourselves from them?

My fear is that we'll lose them as members of the American family. We'll be embarrassed by our own failings and pretend not to see them. They, on the other hand, will find it hard to regain any trust they might have had before in the American social contract.

We have no idea what it will be like to suddenly have in our midst hundreds of thousands of traumatized fellow citizens who have not just "lost everything" as could be said of victims of other natural disasters, but who have lived through a hellish failure of civilization. This is something that has not occurred within the USA in generations on anything like this scale. There will be thousands of personal stories of hunger, fear, and filth. There will be so many stories of abandoned hospital patients, raped children, mobs, and corpses, that we will package them into mental summaries, unable to keep a single story in clear focus.

I hope I'm being overly pessimistic. The reason I fear for the worst is that convenient mental hooks for comfortable mental distancing and willful ignorance just happen to be available in abundance for this particular calamity.

One reason has been widely pointed out: The victims are mostly black and poor. There are other reasons. New Orleans is by definition exceptional. It is one of the magical American places of dreams, sexuality, and vice; a locale that violates the dull American facade of industriousness and respectability. America's Dionysian cities are usually built by the graces of heroic engineering in implausible places, as if to stare oblivion in the face. Las Vegas burns fuel like there's no tomorrow in order to sustain its illusions; San Francisco and Hollywood share Las Vegas' freshwater problems and are famously awaiting deadly earthquakes. (Black Rock City is the most recent member of the club, and the most ephemeral of them all.) True to form, New Orleans cheated death in style, not only below sea level, but in a hurricane zone, embedded awkwardly in a giant, unruly river delta.

The reason I'm thinking about New Orleans' exceptionalism is that the US has gotten by on psychological denial to such a degree in recent times that it will surely be applied in this case. President Bush was careful not to ask Americans for any sacrifice in going to war, and there's an elevated ambient sense of not exactly a selfishness, but a mental separation from any acknowledgement of risk or hassle, in American life. This is possible because we've been lucky.

One of the surreal aspects of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center was that there was an almost perfectly sharp line of demarcation between the zone of total death and destruction and the zone of dazed survival. There were remarkably few wounded, and those who weren't rescued immediately weren't rescued at all. As it happens I was there.

I used to live around the corner, and can report it's hard to honestly take in very bad news even when it's happening right in front of you. This was certainly true within my own brain; As those around me were yelling about people jumping and bodies falling towards us, I was looking at precisely the same thing and yet didn't see what they saw. My brain blocked the horrible images, and later that day, as I found a floor to sleep on uptown, I was grateful for that tiny shield of comforting blindness. As a nation, I don't think we really faced what could have happened, or what might very well happen in the future. That sharp line between victim and witness allowed us to remain in denial.

While there have been all sorts of activities in response to the 9/11 attacks, the events of this week prove that these have not extended to the imaginations, within the skulls of those in power, of seeing their own neighborhoods destroyed, their own families in agony.

What I hope is that the enormous numbers of victims of the post-Katrina "Failed State" period will inspire a resurgence of American collective pragmatism. There inevitably will be more natural catastrophes and perhaps we will see large scale terrorism. In either case, there are some simple lessons to apply. The most obvious is that ideology is no substitute for competence. One can argue in good faith about the ideology of the Bush administration, but not about the competence. There was a brash, horrible display of incompetence this week. Another lesson is that reality is real. Storms will come. Global Warming is related to them.

What I'm most curious about is whether the hundreds of thousands of refugees will cause any change of course in the drift of the dynamic social contract in America. When exactly will all those people in places like the Astrodome leave and under what circumstances? Will they be bussed off to some newly constructed housing project back in New Orleans in a few years? Somehow it's hard to imagine that. Who will pay for those projects? Will they just be asked politely to walk out on the street with new clothes and a few dollars? All of them at once?

It seems to me that Katrina provides us with a hard measure of the limits of the "Ownership Society." We have to come up with a path forward for these people, and it will be a challenge because they are going to be bitter and skeptical from the onset.

My fear is we will make them into untouchables; my hope is they will force us to improve our social contract and rediscover the idea of competence in government, so that none of us end up going through what they went through.