In times of extreme stress, we often discover what we're made of.
Some rally to the moment with acts of heroism and generosity, as many Americans did following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 almost four years ago. In such times we marvel at human resiliency and the core of goodness that props up Homo sapiens americanus.
At other times, people devolve into the animals we really are just beneath the thin veneer we call civilization, as we've witnessed the past several days in New Orleans. In a matter of hours, a rampaging few took it upon themselves to terrorize a sinking city. They shamed a nation already ashamed, as we became bystanders to a tragedy over which no one seemed to have control.
The differences between 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina are obvious and many. One was a targeted strike in a relatively contained area in one of the world's wealthiest corners. The other was an inundation in a vast region that included some of the nation's poorest neighborhoods.
But another difference - the one everyone is talking about - was leadership.
After 9/11, officials stepped up immediately to harness chaos, most notably New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who became the face and figure of authority, competence and, perhaps of equal importance, empathy.
There was no such rush to competence this time around for reasons that are too complex, and as yet unclear, to properly vet in this space. In our race to affix blame, we've found more questions than answers.
All historic events seem to produce an iconographic image that captures the rush and blush of the moment. Katrina may have many, but the single image that speaks loudest is of a submerged New Orleans parking lot filled with school buses.
Why weren't those buses packed in the early hours of the mandatory evacuation with the people whose bodies are now being collected? The "whys" only begin there, followed by, "Who's to blame?" The fact of so much finger pointing merely betrays the extent of guilt.
The obvious truth is government - local, state and federal - didn't do enough before the storm hit or thereafter. Yes, it is up to individuals and families to look out for themselves, their own and, one hopes, their neighbors. But it is up to government to intercede when citizens are, for whatever reason, incapable of acting.
If you know, as surely the city of New Orleans did, that some percentage of the population is too poor, sick, young, elderly or disabled to leave - and living below sea level in a city whose levees are inadequate to protect against anything above a Category 3 hurricane - then government has to act. Swiftly and unequivocally.
Everyone seems to have failed to varying degrees, including President George W. Bush for this simple reason: He is the commander in chief and this was a national disaster. No, he didn't cause the hurricane, nor, by the way, did God in retribution against sin, or gays, or corruption - or whatever story the end-time gang is advancing this week.
But Bush did fail to act swiftly and unequivocally. When he did act, at least initially, it was without authority, without competence and - never more important - without apparent empathy. You do not have to let a tear drip all the way down your cheek while the cameras are rolling to convincingly communicate empathy. But you do have to choose your words carefully in order to convey emotions appropriate to the moment.
To wit: You do not talk about Trent Lott's lost house and his beloved front porch when thousands are rotting in a stinking incubator without food, water, medicine, air or bathroom facilities. You do not talk folksy about "cuttin' those ribbons" when businesses are back up somewhere in the future when in the present people are fishing the grim remains of loved ones from gutters and attics.
Here's what you do, and what Bush should have done. You kick a--.
The man at the top of the food chain does not have to play by bureaucracy's rule. As commander in chief, Bush should have helicoptered into New Orleans (he could have worn his flight suit from his Operation Mission Accomplished jet carrier landing), parked himself next to the Superdome and started ordering his generals to get the job done.
Whatever needed doing. However possible.
Instead, he came too late to the disaster and caused even supporters to cringe with every ill-chosen word. He lost not only the politician's fantasy photo op, but he let slip the rarest of opportunities - that of saving human life and the nation's pride. By his performance in this time of extreme stress, Bush may have revealed a truer self than we were meant to see.