A huge event like New Orleans’ demise understandably dwarfs all other news. It’s the sort of calamity that will be recalled in years hence whenever its anniversary crops up. What late summer horror awaits that will in turn cause future generations to forget what Katrina set in motion on August 29, 2005?
I’m not complaining. The here and now always enjoys primacy. Anniversary commemorations are a luxury, a way to add meaning and perspective to peaceful times. Of course they can also carry a great deal of personal baggage. For instance, ask any Pole of my parents’ or my generation what September 1 means, they immediately connect to the day in 1939 on which Hitler started bombing Poland. Growing up more than a decade later in the safety of the U.S. I knew full well it was date that changed the world. A lot of people who were alive before that day would very soon be dead because of what occurred on it. The country would remain under foreign occupation for the next 50 years. So far as I knew, it was the darkest day on the Polish calendar. Now that Poland is finally on its way to full recovery from the events it set in motion — and that few remain who were actually alive on that day 66 years ago yesterday — its associations might henceforth seem less apocalyptic.
Meanwhile, Poland on August 31 marked the 25th anniversary of Solidarity’s official emergence as Communism’s undoer. If not for Anne Applebaum’s column in the Washington Post, the event would have been all but overlooked in the U.S. Applebaum expressed chagrin that Poles had not remembered Solidarity’s rise with greater affection, perhaps because of all the difficulties they’ve had readjusting after Communism’s fall in 1989, particularly since ruling Communists turned out to be positioned to exploit the system’s collapse. But it should also be recalled that Poles never reacted to Communism’s defeat with the euphoria they experienced with Solidarity’s birth in 1980. December 2006 will mark the 25th anniversary of General Jaruzelski’s imposition of martial law on Poland. Let’s see if people still remember it as an event that knocked the stuffing out of Poland once again.
Unhappy anniversaries are almost better left ignored. Earlier last month there were some mentions of the Watts riots that broke out in Los Angeles on August 11, 1965. What we didn’t know several weeks ago is that the events — the “divisions” — of 40 years ago would soon rear their ugly head in New Orleans. The difference this time is that no one is saying Great Society reforms will change things for the better, or that maybe another Kerner Commission should be convened.
For a while, we were observing every September 11 since 2001 as a near holy event. Its approach will likely take on new coloring this time, most especially because of Katrina and New Orleans. There’ll be inevitable contrasts drawn between the already mythical leadership provided by Rudy Giuliani four years ago and its near absence this time, particularly in Louisiana, whether from local, state, or presidential officials. Media coverage has been at times embarrassing, particularly ABC’s special report on Wednesday night in which the network’s two Roberts girls, natives of the stricken region, could only speak in terms of what the devastation meant to each of them. For good measure, Robin Roberts cried on cue at at least two venues. TV-sponsored vanity and self-absorption won’t do much to rebuild the Gulf Coast.
Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” seemed to be more serious, until Ted decided to end Tuesday’s broadcast on as ominous a note as he could summon: He declared it “almost inevitable” that a terrorist bomb will be set off in one of our cities. If you thought an “accidental storm” could cause such damage, just wait until an “intentional terrorist attack” does its work. “We need to talk about it and we need to plan for it.” If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was engaging in fear mongering, a sure sign he has no answers, whether on how New Orleans might be saved or how the unknowable can ever be prevented.
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