Columnists > Voices

Unquenchable appetite

The false god of government cannot satisfy in times of plenty or want

Issue: "Katrina: Week 2," Sept. 17, 2005

Why did we ever think it would work? Whatever possessed us to look for the ultimate in disaster relief from a governmental system that had dreamed up public education, the agricultural subsidy program, Medicare, and Social Security? Why did we think they would get this one right?

Truth be told, all the whining about the supposedly insensitive and slow response to Hurricane Katrina is off the mark. When anything comes along that is bigger and badder than anything that has come before-and maybe bigger and badder by a factor of two or three-it's pretty hard to look around and say that somebody should have been ready for this. Sometimes, even in the midst of tragedy and horror, we have to suck it in and collectively plead for mercy. There might be a time for prudent second-guessing down the road, but not quite yet. Finger pointing while corpses are still bobbing in the murky waters is unseemly. There will almost certainly be enough guilt to go around when the time comes.

But let's grant, for the moment, that President George Bush, FEMA, Homeland Security, and all the rest of the federal apparatus should have taken a few hours off three weeks ago to rehearse several times over just what they might do in the specific event that any one of dozens of possible permutations began to unfold as Katrina approached from the Gulf of Mexico. Then let's assume as well that all these plans had been carried out perfectly. What on earth prompts us to suppose Americans would have been happier with the results?

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Happiness with the results of any big government effort, of course, is almost an oxymoron. The reason is simply that when people start putting their trust in big government, they've attached themselves to a false god. And false gods can't produce the goods.

What we saw in New Orleans last week was the pathetic picture of people whose expectations in a false god had been so enhanced that when the false god stumbled for a day or two, some of his worshippers flew into a rage. They'd been betrayed, they said. Not only had their god failed to tend to their obvious physical needs in prompt style; he had made them look weak and foolish in the process.

Note this well: A people who cannot, even while in dire distress, minister to the weakest and the dying among them; a people who do not, even while waiting hungrily for help they desperately need, respectfully and reverently take care of the bodies of those who do die; such a people will be known to history as frighteningly farther down the road to decadence than most of us want to admit.

And then remember this: That such a people will in the days to come develop a bigger and bigger appetite for gods who promise them everything. And then they will show a lower and lower tolerance for gods who do not perform.

The smug pretense-exhibited over the last few days by politicians, by media writers and broadcasters, by religious leaders, and by entertainers-claimed repeatedly that if government had just been prepared, much of the horror left by Hurricane Katrina might have been precluded. But the suggestion is false on its face, for it is difficult to conceive of any organization of human capacities that might have tended to the needs of half a million people much better than what you've watched since Aug. 30. News reports have suggested repeatedly that even in the Third World, things would have gone faster than they did in the Gulf states. Don't believe it. In the Third World, hunger is perpetual. What you saw for a week or two was painful, but exceptional. What you see so many other places is chronic.

According to the Bible, deliberately shortchanging the poor, or even carelessly ignoring their needs, is wicked behavior. But raising false expectations is also a cruel game. And that includes constantly dividing the people and feeding the illusion that if we'd just had some other president, or some other governor, or some other mayor, we could all be content. If government can't make us all happy even when there isn't an emergency, why should we make it our god when the next Katrina comes blowing through?

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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