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America’s great paradox

In disasters, the individual and the State reconcile. But not in normal times

india Updated: Oct 31, 2012 23:12 IST
Paul Harris

Despite its suburban ideals and cultural dreams of white picket fences, America is a dangerous place. Earthquakes are a part of life for citizens of Californian mega-cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. In the south-west, gigantic wildfires tear across the landscape each summer. The midwestern heartland is in fact prone to lethal tornadoes. The south is regularly visited by devastating hurricanes.

All these natural disasters produce in extremis events for those impacted and give us a glimpse into the true character of the nation and its millions of citizens. The result seems to be that Americans often brush themselves off, put their shoulders to the wheel and quickly start to rebuild. They reach out, help each other, and triumph.

There seems a display of pioneer spirit that has the clean-up underway even before the disaster is over. In the US, unlike many other parts of the world, there is often a focus on creating something new out of the wreckage. Just look at the town of Greensburg in Kansas. It was wiped out by a tornado in 2007 that destroyed 95% of its buildings. Five years later, Greensburg has rebuilt itself as one of the most environmentally sensitive communities in the country.

Indeed, in disaster America tends to harmonise two themes, which, in its day-to-day politics, always seem so separate: the role of the individual and the role of government. During an election, those two seem locked in mortal combat, destined to forever fight via their proxies of the Democratic and Republican parties. In disaster, however, they often go hand in hand.
No wonder the late great writer Kurt Vonnegut, often held up as America’s conscience, praised volunteer firefighters in so many of his books. That is playing out now in New Jersey right now in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Governor Chris Christie is deploying all the many powers at his disposal to help his fellow citizens. Always so conservative when it comes to respecting individual liberty, Christie has issued mandatory evacuations and welcomed the proffered hand of federal aid.

Indeed, the main recent catastrophe where America failed to step up to the plate — the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — was seen mostly as a failure of too little government help. President George W Bush was lambasted for not doing enough: for government inaction. The hero of the hour became the National Guard, which swept into the disaster zone to take action: again, a bunch of reservist volunteers who make up a part of government.

To see this synthesis of the American individual and American government, you don’t always have to look at outright disasters. New York City regularly deals with the sort of blizzard that brings weeks of havoc to countries like Britain. Yet, in New York, the streets are rapidly swept clean and the city shrugs off the storm and gets back to work remarkably quickly.

One thing a foreigner always notices is how each shopkeeper or homeowner rapidly comes out and sweeps away the snow outside their building. They are required to do so by law and it does an amazing job of dealing with any blizzard. Each person salts and clears just the patch in front of their building. No more and no less. It’s an act of individualism. Yet, it is mandated by government (you can get a ticket for not doing it), and the result is that each individual acts together, as a community, and the whole city leaps back to life.

It seems that disaster and crisis provide an opportunity for Americans to blend together their individualism and their communal instincts into something that really works. But if you look at the headlines of the warring political campaigns of the 2012 election, it remains a distant dream for more normal times. The Guardian