Pledges We Must Keep

This Sunday we will mark the fourth anniversary of 9/11. I hold vivid memories of seeing in response to that tragedy Republican and Democratic members of Congress join hands on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and sing God Bless America. What came of our response, and what can we learn in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? You’ll recall that after 9/11 numerous pledges were made. You could hear people say that our politics would become more productive; news media coverage would become more serious and accurate; and more citizens would become more engaged in community and public affairs.

I’m sure you remember the U.S. flag decals on cars, the blood donations, the singing of patriotic hymns at ballgames and other public events, and the flag pins in newscasters’ lapels. These were indeed potent signs of people’s concern and their desire to act.

But now we know that we did not fulfill all the pledges we made – at least not over time. In fact, next week I will release my new book, Hope Unraveled: The People’s Retreat and Our Way Back, and in the chapter entitled False Start, which is based on conversations held in 2003, Americans talk movingly about their frustration and regret that the nation engaged in a kind of temporary patriotism, only to return to business as usual.

This return to business as usual was witnessed again in the ugliness of the last presidential campaign; it is witnessed today in the fast and furious recriminations over who is to blame for New Orleans.

Yes, New Orleans: here we are, once more, facing a tragedy, one that engulfs the entire nation and its very identity. Already, Americans have gone into high hear to help those in need. Just yesterday, my daughter and her friends put together backpacks filled with supplies and other goodies, along with heartfelt notes, for children miles away now preparing to attend a new school miles from their own homes.

But what will come of our response to New Orleans?

  • Will this tragedy prompt us to debate the conditions of public schools in New Orleans, or for that matter in any community where they are clearly substandard?
  • Will this tragedy cause us to think about why so many people left behind were of one color?
  • Will this tragedy cause the news media to reflect on their inclinations to cover this tragedy as if it were an around-the-clock ‘event’ rather than help us to gain perspective on what it means for the people of the Gulf Coast and the rest of us?
  • Will this tragedy make us realize that we cannot simply retreat into our close-knit circles of families and friends, but that we need communities?
  • Will this tragedy help us to see that we live through an entanglement of relationships, support and obligations?
  • Thus, will this tragedy reawaken within us the notion that we must be, and that we are, all part of something larger than ourselves?

Tragedies come and go in our land, and yet oftentimes we stay put in our ways. We make pledges, we call out for change, we point fingers, and we place blame, but how much in the end is changed?

We all must engage in good deeds to help the people of the Gulf Coast. Then let us look at ourselves and make something good out of something so sorrowful. Let us make us pledges to work for the public good; but, this time, let more of us keep these pledges.