Blame gets a bad name

Posted: Sep 17, 2005 12:00 AM

It is a feat of linguistic magic to deflect criticism as playing the “blame game,” and White House press secretary Scott McClellan is Katrina's David Copperfield.

To repeated questions about the delayed federal response to Hurricane Katrina during a recent press briefing, McClellan demurred by saying he wasn't going to play the blame game.

Fine. Let's call it something else. Let's call it “getting to the bottom of things,” “trying to discover the truth,” “looking for answers.” We can have a contest for a pithy title, but meanwhile, ignoring legitimate questions about national security at a time of cataclysmic disaster is playing some other kind of game.

Defenders of the Bush administration, some of whom seem pathologically unable to see mistakes no matter what the evidence, have winced at the notion that the federal government should have done more in Katrina's aftermath. (I recognize the irony of these words tumbling from my fingertips, given my support of Bush throughout the Iraq war, so please do not feel compelled to congratulate me on my belated epiphany. The levees of my e-mailbox already have been breached, and I'm sitting on the roof of my building as I type.)

 But the war is an apple and this is an orange. Or an orangutan, if you prefer. A big hairy ape of a problem that Americans have a right to wish solved. It's not so much a question of blame being posed as it is a quest for assurance in one scary world.

To his credit, President George W. Bush has accepted responsibility for the federal government's slow response as reflected in Thursday night's speech from New Orleans. His remarks promising to rebuild what Katrina had torn asunder were the tithings (at extreme public expense) of a guilt-ridden man. It was also, two weeks after Katrina, a full-blown acknowledgement that the buck stops with the presidency in a national disaster, and Bush gets points for that recognition.

By contrast, many Bush supporters have been doggedly resistant to assigning any responsibility to the feds for the suffering that followed Katrina. Their main arguments, which I embrace with qualification, are that people need to be self-sufficient, that local and state governments have first-responder responsibility in crisis, and that our welfare state is responsible for nurturing a helpless mindset among victims that doomed them to their fates.

No one would argue against self-sufficiency as a human goal or contradict established protocol for crisis management, though such pre-arrangements are subject to human error and poor judgment that may require, as here, spontaneous intervention. The welfare argument is also defensible to a point. I'm not one to spend much time on the weeping couch. If not for cold season, a box of tissues would last me a decade.

 But. It is beyond unseemly to justify consequences befalling the unfortunate on the basis that they should have known better or done more. The implication wears a sneer and ignores the larger issue, the one that transcends blame and begs redress: What about national security?

We can hash out issues of poverty, race and class and state's rights and federalism and all those other luxuries of our overfilled bellies as the weeks go by. Of more immediate concern is how we protect ourselves against terrorists when the federal government has proved itself unreliable at our first dress rehearsal.

In the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Bush defined his administration in terms of national security, building the colossal Department of Homeland Security and creating a Cabinet position for its director. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency that coordinates federal response to catastrophes, including hurricanes, was absorbed by the new department, while Bush cronies replaced the organization's most experienced staffers.

One of those was recently resigned Michael D. Brown, an attorney and former horse-show administrator whose official title in retrospect sends shivers: Under Secretary of Emergency Preparedness and Response. When FEMA was slow to respond to Katrina — and Brown seemed to be a day behind headlines familiar to anyone with a TV — Americans were justified in wondering who was watching the mother ship.

And in asking what, heaven forbid, might have happened had the levees been targeted by terrorists instead of Mother Nature? It was fair to conclude that if Brown was head of FEMA, and FEMA was part of Homeland Security, then homeland security might be in trouble. That's why many Americans are outraged and point to Bush in the blame game.

Whatever sense of security Americans may have felt before Katrina hit has been washed away with the fetid waters that swamped over New Orleans. It will take more than a linguistic trick to get it back.