The Scofflaw Swimmer
Government takes too much authority and not enough responsibility.
Thursday, September 29, 2005 12:01 a.m.
With the DeLay indictment and another Supreme Court nominee soon to be announced, the subject has moved on from Hurricane Katrina. But I'm still thinking about it.
News reports and common media wisdom this week suggested Katrina was actually a smaller story than we thought--fewer dead than had been feared, more hype than was helpful. But to me the impact of Katrina is growing bigger and more consequential. It was a watershed event that revealed, unforgettably, the inadequacy of government; the fragility of presidential reputations; the presence of fissures within the dominant party; and the incapacity of the opposition to be constructive in response to the event, or even to show the bare minimum political talent of effectively capitalizing on it.
But I think Katrina revealed something else: a change in the relation of the individual and those who would govern him.
David Brooks on "Meet the Press" Sunday said he thought Katrina had given rise to a greater public desire for "authority" and "order." I found what he was saying typically thoughtful, but I differ with him. That difference gives rise to this piece.
I don't think Americans are or have been, by nature, lovers of authority. When we think of the old America we think of house-raisings on the prairie and teeming cities full of immigrants, but a big part of the American nature can also be found in the story of Jeremiah Johnson, the mountain man who just wanted to live off by himself, unbothered and unmolested by people and their churches and clubs and rules. He didn't like authority. He wanted to be left alone.
We live in the age of emergency, however, and in that age we hunger for someone to take responsibility. Not authority, but a sense of "I'll lead you out of this." On 9/11 the firemen took responsibility: I will go into the fire. So did the mayor: This is how we'll get through, this is how we'll triumph.
In New Orleans, by contrast, the mayor seemed panicked, the governor seemed medicated, and the airborne wasn't there until it was there and peace was restored. Until then no one took responsibility. There was a vacuum. But nature abhors a vacuum, so rumors and chaos came in to fill it. Which made things worse.
No one took charge. Thus the postgame commentary in which everyone blamed someone else: The mayor fumbled the ball, the governor didn't call the play, the president didn't have a ground game.
No one took responsibility, but there was plenty of authority. People in authority sent the lost to the Superdome and the Convention Center. People in authority blocked the bridges out of town. People in authority tried to confiscate guns after the looting was over.
And they did things like this: The day before hurricane Rita hit Texas, last Friday, I saw on TV something that disturbed me. It was not the usual scene of crashing waves and hardy reporters being blown sideways by wind gusts. It was a fat Texas guy swimming in the waves off Galveston. He'd apparently decided the high surf was a good thing to jump into, so he went for a prehurricane swim. Two cops saw him, waded into the surf and arrested him. When I saw it the guy was standing there in orange trunks being astonished as the cops put handcuffs on him and hauled him away.
I thought: Oh no, this is isn't good. This is authority, not responsibility.
You'd have to be crazy, in my judgment, to decide you were going to go swim in the ocean as a hurricane comes. But in the America where I grew up, you were allowed to be crazy. You had the right. Sometimes you were crazy and survived whatever you did. Sometimes you didn't, and afterwards everyone said, "He was crazy."
Last week I quoted Gerald Ford: "The government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have." I was talking about money. But it applies also to personal freedom, to the rights of the individual, including his right to do something stupid as long as it's legal, like swimming.
Government has real duties in disaster. Maintaining the peace is a primary one. But if we demand that our government protect us from all the weather all the time, if we demand that it protect us from rain and hail, if we make government and politicians pay a terrible price for not getting us out of every flood zone and rescuing us from every wave, we're going to lose a lot more than we gain. If we give government all authority then we are giving them all power.
And we will not only lose the right to be crazy, we'll lose the right to be sane. A few weeks ago when, for a few days, some level of government, it isn't completely clear, decided no one should be allowed to live in New Orleans after the flood, law-enforcement officers went to the home of a man who had a dry house, a month's supply of food and water, and a gun to protect himself. The police demanded that he leave. Why? He was fine. He had everything he needed. The man was enraged: It was his decision, he said, and he was staying.
It is the government's job to warn and inform. That's what we have the National Weather Service for. It is not government's job to command and control and make microdecisions about the lives of people who want to do it their own way.
This sort of thing of course has been going on for a long time. In Katrina and Rita it just became more dramatically obvious as each incident played out on TV.
Governments always start out saying they're going to help, and always wind up pushing you around. They cannot help it. They say they want to help us live healthily and they mean it, but it ends with a guy in Queens getting arrested for trying to have a Marlboro Light with his Bud at the neighborhood bar. We're hauling the parents of obese children into court. The government has increasing authority over our health, and these children are not healthy. Smokers, the fat, drinkers of more than two drinks per night, insane swimmers in high seas . . .
We are losing the balance between the rights of the individual and the needs and demands of the state. Again, this is not new. It's a long slide that's been going on for a long time. But Katrina and Rita seemed to make the slide deeper.
It is hard for governments to be responsible, and take responsibility. It takes real talent, and guts. But authority? That's easier. Pass the law and get the cuffs.
I want to mention the media's part in this. This week it was their turn in the barrel. They reported rumors and hyped the event by going with every story that came by--rapes in the Superdome, people shooting at helicopters, armed gangs roving the streets, etc.
Rush Limbaugh is correct when he says what happened in New Orleans proves again that the famous filters of the MSM--the layers of editors they say protect them from the kinds of mistakes that can be made by bloggers and other lone cowboys of the information age--guarantee nothing in terms of the reliability of reportage.
But the media story has three parts.
Reporters on the ground in New Orleans deserve great credit. They were trying to get the story, trying to fill a vacuum--the vacuum left by government's failure to take responsibility. Government officials were giving them incorrect information--it was the mayor of New Orleans himself who said there may be 10,000 dead. They were often in considerable personal danger. They were human, tough, hardy, imperfect and often heroic. They deserve our thanks.
Then there were the anchors who became upset as the story unfolded and showed their emotion on the air. This wasn't bad until the end. When Anderson Cooper blasted a U.S. senator for verbal glad-handing it was not only refreshing, it was needed. But by the end the new indignation had degenerated, as such things do. When I last saw Soledad O'Brien I think she was berating a city councilman because someone left a Chihuahua in the Garden District. Now and then anchors remind you that you've swum with smarter porpoises.
But neither the rumor mongering nor the posing was really harmful, or harmful in a way that couldn't be remedied. The worst part of TV in the hurricane coverage was the nonstop, wall-to-wall, relentless hammering of the viewers about the danger they were in if they were in . . . the path of the storm.
TV is there to be watched. Each network and channel succeeds if you watch. They try--they're in business after all--to do everything they can to make you watch. They give you pretty reporters and bright human-interest stories. But they also try, when they get the chance, to terrify you. They try to terrify you into watching. Rita is on a flight path into the very heart of Galveston. The storm may drown Houston. If Port Arthur is submerged it will cause massive loss of life. All humans have been ordered by all levels of government to evacuate. Flee, I tell you! Run for your lives!
We will probably find out more people died of media-induced heart attacks than of Hurricane Rita itself.
If government cannot distinguish between authority and responsibility, media have trouble distinguishing between the helpful reporting of facts and the whipping up of fear.
The latter not only does not help, it hurts. Here's one way: when you endlessly pound America with the idea that Armageddon is imminent, you're pushing Americans to conclude that only something big can save them, something huge, something omnipotent--like government.
Which is only too happy to take authority. And only too likely to dodge responsibility.
TV people like to say they only report the story, they aren't the story. But with their constant alarms and agitation they are contributing to a bad story. It is a story of a people who are encouraged to demand that the government make them safe, when the government will not make them safe, and the people know it deep in their hearts. Still, they give the government more authority in the hope that it will take responsibility.
The two cops who arrested the guy swimming in the waves before the hurricane hit Texas: they did it in front of cameras. They probably did it because of the cameras. Big media is watching. Big government has to act.
Ms. Noonan is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal and author of "John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father," forthcoming in November from Penguin, which you can preorder from the OpinionJournal bookstore. Her column appears Thursdays.