08/29/2007 10:30 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

America's Failure in New Orleans

It's been two years, and New Orleans struggles onward - quite possibly towards oblivion at some point in the coming decades. And the country, it seems, yawns.

I still don't get it.

True national traumas are relatively rare events in America. 9/11 was one, and you have to say 8/29 was another. As the levees collapsed and water rushed into city neighborhoods, it also tore back the thin curtains that conceal various brewing, very serious national problems - the persistence of poverty and racial inequity, neglected infrastructure, government with its wheels off. In fact, the basic compact between people and government - for measure of protection against the loss of life and property - failed.

The collapsed levees have been repaired, but that compact remains broken. The harsh reality of 8/29 is still lived out every day by the residents of New Orleans - but America couldn't face it. We blamed Bush and Brownie and Blanco and Nagin and we quickly turned away. There were other things for the political/media culture to focus on, such as the continuing sideshow of Iraq, which has become an inexhaustible source of meaningless debate in Washington.

If you think Katrina is just about New Orleans and the Gulf coast, think again. Our national failures there have alarming implications for the future. There are many practical problems we could be grappling with now, but aren't. New Orleans could have been - and could yet be - a laboratory for devising technologies and policies for sustainable development in this era of rapid, dangerous environmental changes. But, though gradual progress is being made (driven almost entirely from the bottom up) the absence of national leadership has made the New Orleans recovery an improvised, intractable mess, our own domestic quagmire.

What I don't understand is how politicians and the public can so casually accept this shameful and dangerous state of affairs. We've turned a corner, here. Has America become too fragmented, too indifferent, too shell-shocked by the various threats of the past few years, real and imagined, to deal with real problems?