Friday, September 16, 2005

Mr. President, Why Won't You Support an INDEPENDENT Commission to Study the Federal Response to Katrina?

After last night's partial mea culpa from the President, the Public needs to hold him to his word and ask one simple question repeatedly and insistently, until it receives an adequate answer:

"Why, Mr. President, if you are truly serious about taking responsibility for the failures in the Federal response to the Katrina disaster, and if you are truly serious about doing what is necessary to make sure such failures do not occur again, why won't you support an INDEPENDENT commission's study of these failures, just as you eventually did of the government failures related to 9/11?"

In his speech last night, the President declared the following:

Four years after the frightening experience of September 11th, Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency. When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I, as President, am responsible for the problem, and for the solution. So I have ordered every Cabinet secretary to participate in a comprehensive review of the government response to the hurricane. This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. We are going to review every action and make necessary changes, so that we are better prepared for any challenge of nature, or act of evil men, that could threaten our people.

The United States Congress also has an important oversight function to perform. Congress is preparing an investigation, and I will work with members of both parties to make sure this effort is thorough.

Yes, Americans do indeed "have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency." But if America's citizens--and especially those hundreds of thousands of citizens transformed by this emergency into evacuees--are ever going to learn the lessons of this tragic failure of governmental response, much more than mere rhetorical declarations of responsibility will be necessary.

If this declaration of responsibility is not mere political rhetoric designed to further evade responsibility under the appearance of accepting it, these failures need more than a self-investigation by the same arms of government that need to be held accountable to the Public. How can the Executive administration and Congress be put in charge of investigating their own failures, while the Public is asked to believe this will be a "thorough" and "comprehensive" review? Do our governmental leaders really believe that we have become so stupid that we will accept such nonsense for truth? The only thing thorough and comprehensive in such a self-review will be the ways in which both Congress and the Administration hide their mistakes behind another barrage of words that do more to confuse than to reveal the truth of things.

If these words of the President are not mere pretension to accepting responsibility, while he continues to evade responsibility, the President will need to accept an Independent investigation of this Failure in Federal response--just as he eventually did, after much foot-dragging, for 9-11. From our previous experience of watching him reject appeals for an independent commission after 9-11 until he could no longer hold out against public pressure, we can be sure that this President will once again resist an independent investigation until the public has forced him to realize that the consequences of continuing to refuse such a study will be worse than submitting to the public's demand for accountability.

The Public must demand full accountability for these failures, and accept nothing less. For this time ignorance can be no excuse. We can watch on video the President and the Head of Homeland Security and the Head of FEMA all protest that "no one could have imagined" such a disaster, while we know there are library shelves full of scientific studies and news reports that have piled up over several decades, which imagined exactly this kind of disaster.

This time we and our government knew exactly what was going to happen, but worse than doing nothing, both Congress and the Administration after 9-11 stood by and watched while the capacities of FEMA for responding to emergencies were systematically undermined by executive authority, under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security. Pleading ignorance this time--by Congress and by the President--will simply not work. This time, the ignorance of our leading officials charged with protecting the public proves only one thing: their ignorance about those things for which they were supposed to be most responsible: the protection of the public health and well-being.

And if the Public will not now stand up and DEMAND a FULL accounting, the Public will be betraying its own most fundamental interests, and will be declaring that it simply doesnt care to know how or why these failures are occurring, no matter how many times they occur. And after this we can be sure of only one thing: that if we do nothing to demand a fundamental change in the way our government conducts its preparedness initiatives, we will continue to witness one disaster after another in the years ahead.

How can the Congress conduct anything close to a "comprehensive" review of failures related to Katrina, when the Congress along with the President was largely responsible for those failures? It did not adequately fund what New Orleans needed; it allowed the administration to undermine the abilities of FEMA to respond to this kind of disaster. And if Congress now proves itself willing to accept anything less than a fully independent investigation, it will be aiding and abetting further irresponsibility and lack of accountability, rather than furthering a "comprehensive" investigation. If Congress accepts anything less than a fully independent investigation, it will only be proving that it is as guilty as this administration in continuing to do more to cover over, than to reveal, the truth behind our government's culpability in this largely unnatural disaster.

The Hurricane was Nature's doing; but the failures that left perhaps thousands dead, and tens of thousands stranded without transportation or food or water or timely rescue were all too human, and all the more tragic since a strong FEMA--if its response capacities had not been systematically undermined since 2001 by its subordination to the Department of Homeland Security, and by political appointees who had no experience or expertise in disaster management--might have saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives, and could have prevented the unnecessary suffering of hundreds of thousands.

We don't know whether or what kind of terrorism we may have to deal with in the future--but we do know that every year during this season we will be dealing with hurricanes; and we also know that every year in every season we well be dealing with the terrible effects of poverty on the lives of millions; we know we will be dealing with 40 million American citizens without adequate health care.

It is time we stop using terrorism as an excuse for not dealing with these much more fundamental problems that millions of American citizens are struggling with every day of the year. If Katrina, and the shame of our inability to respond to the cries of our own citizens has not awakened this country to this most basic of realities, than this country may never awaken from what, without major change, can only grow into an ever deepening nightmare.

"We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action," the President said. Indeed, we--all American citizens--do have this duty. And when once we decide to begin living up to this duty, perhaps the tide will turn against a continuing policy of tax cuts and social spending cuts, that for the past four years have been failing to prevent an increase in the impoverishment of America's citizens.

Perhaps Katrina can yet teach us that when a hundred thousand citizens of New Orleans suffer, we all suffer. And if in that suffering America's citizens can once again awaken to our sense of shared responsibility for each other, perhaps there is still some hope to be stirred up from beneath the poisoned sludge of New Orleans--hope for the people of New Orleans, hope for the people of the Gulf Coast--hope for all Americans.


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