Incompetence and the blame game

It takes a horrific event, such as Katrina, to bring to light the true nature of elected (or appointed) government officials. Politicians, at least those in our duopoly variety, seem to find their last refuge from criticism by finger-pointing and blame-casting. Accepting responsibility or acknowledging a mea culpa is totally foreign to them.

And so it was with Katrina. As people were being rescued from the rooftops of flooded buildings in New Orleans , in what became a total failure of a protracted initial response, there were issues of poverty and race pushed onto center stage. The compelling faces of the forgotten black and poor, who in this land of plenty we fail to acknowledge that exist, probably colored our vision… obscuring the real truth.

But Americans, even the most selfish and greedy among us, are not capable of being so callous and inhumane with their fellow Americans. At least one prays that we are not. Not the people. Not the politicians elected to serve us. So when something like this happens, any probe done by politicians, at any level- by whatever governmental body, is a waste of time, a redundancy at best… for we know the culprit: incompetence. Incompetence, not prejudice, at all levels of government… by politicians, and those of us who become complicit by electing them.

Walt Kelly had this gem come out of Pogo’s mouth half-century ago: “we have met the enemy and they is us.” The wisdom of that comic strip of old still holds true. And the enemy, the one we don’t really care to face, is simply incompetence… and incompetence is us.

As things now stand, the governments of New Orleans and Louisiana , federal agencies (FEMA/Homeland Security), Congress, and the Presidency… all, individually and jointly, appear as blame-worthy for the planning and response debacle. Not just those now in office who hold responsible positions, but their predecessors as well. All can jointly stand trial; all accused of the same offense… all to be found guilty of what should be in government service a capital crime: incompetence.

Two days after Katrina’s sweeping landfall, as suffering and devastation stood the ground on their own, I had to convince myself that whatever was happening before my eyes was not the aftermath of a natural disaster, but one man-made… one resulting from total incompetence, one that should not be happening in a nation with human and economic resources unmatched anywhere. So I proceeded to contact the embassies of a hundred nations in Washington D.C. with a “homemade” survey.

Although only half of the embassies responded, it did become obvious that by any standard one would care to set, other nations, rich and poor, large or small, seem to approach the safety and security of their people in a more professional manner than we do… even nations in the Third World . And that professionalism starts at the top, where most individuals at the helm- and certainly all those in the next management tier, are career professionals with relevant education and experience… not political appointees, cronies who are but lobbyists-in-waiting. These are career professionals who disrobe themselves from party alliances or ideologies to serve the needs of the nation. Reading the results, I am not sure whether it was anger or embarrassment that affected me most.

Can anyone fathom the idea that a small Baltic republic, Estonia, about the size of New Jersey and a population at par with that of New Orleans Metro Area, could show us how to prepare for and handle natural or man-made disasters? I, for one, would be far more confident under their Rescue Board and Border Guard, than anything under the auspices of Chertoff’s Homeland Security.

If there is one snapshot worth remembering during the Katrina aftermath, one that explains politicians’ incompetence and lack of concern, it was provided by CNN’s Anderson Cooper in his short chat with Mary Landrieu during the early days of the disaster. Senator Landrieu, seemingly oblivious to the reality of the moment, was pandering to her colleagues in the Senate exalting them for an upcoming aid package. In contrast, Anderson , emotionally showing his caring human side, was listening with unmasked disgust; lashing back at Landrieu with the righteousness one assumes Jesus showed when condemning the moneychangers at the Temple .

Louisianans Nagin, Blanco, Landrieu… and the “federal bunch,” all performed as proud successors of the Keystone Cops; except the latter made us, and our grandparents, laugh, while the politicians and their cronies gave us the sad results that come from incompetence… not just in Louisiana but Mississippi as well.

At day’s end, if one must ask where the buck should stop, the logical default answer is likely to be: at the feet of the Incompetent-In-Chief.