Friday, September 9, 2005

Some of our fast friends in the rest of the world who thought they understood us have decided that maybe they don’t.

“We have been puzzled by the pictures on television,” a friendly Indonesian diplomat says. “We were plucking starving, bedraggled people out of trees more than a week after the tsunami, and the reaction was invariably one of gratitude and thanksgiving. In America there is only complaining that someone did not get there sooner with more.”

Sad but true. Americans were once taught that God helps those who help themselves, as illustrated by this story: A man marooned on a roof in a flood prays loudly for help, and a boat arrives at once to pluck him to safety. “Well, I might get my feet wet,” he says. “I’ll wait for a helicopter.” The boat departs and soon a helicopter chatters to a spot just above his head and drops a rope ladder. “Well,” the man said, “heights make me dizzy. I’ll wait for the water to go down.” The helicopter flies away, the water continues to rise. The man drowns and wakes up in heaven. He confronts St. Peter and complains crossly: “I asked God to save me and I don’t understand why He didn’t hear my prayer.” St. Peter shakes his head in disgust, or as close to disgust as heaven allows. “Look, bub,” he says, “God sent a boat, and then a helicopter, and since you were such an ungrateful jerk He let you drown.”

Unless we’re all jerks, we all stand humiliated for what the televised acts of a miserable few over the past fortnight have told the world about us, portraying us as a nation of whining, churlish ingrates and opportunists, or worse, eager to exploit the suffering of others.

The newspapers frame the television images as the lasting public perceptions. “Anarchy in the USA,” screams the headline in Britain’s best-selling newspaper, the Sun. “Apocalypse Now,” cries Berlin’s Handelsblatt. A Portuguese cameraman tells Lisbon television: “It’s a chaotic situation. It’s terrible. It’s a situation we generally see in the Third World.” In fact, residents of the Third World, from South America across Africa to Asia, have the right to feel insulted by odious comparison. “I am absolutely disgusted,” a Sri Lankan businessman says of the thieves, murderers and rapists who turned New Orleans into a killing field. “Not a single tourist caught in the Asian tsunami was mugged. Now with all this happening in America we can easily see where the civilized part of the world lies.”

But as appalling as the behavior of the churlish, the thuggish and the barbaric has been, the behavior of our politicians is worse. The politicians, who have the excuse of neither poverty nor ignorance, deliberately exploit the misery of others for personal gain. The early rebukes of the mayor, the governor and the president got things moving, but with that accomplished you might think that for once we’re neither black nor white, liberal nor conservative, Republican nor Democrat, but Americans eager to help other Americans.

And most of us are. But the decent instincts that drive most Americans are scarce in certain precincts when opportunity knocks. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the leaders of the congressional Democrats, have been particularly knavish (and congressional Republicans particularly cowardly in confronting the partisan calumny). Mrs. Pelosi gave reporters a heroic (and unlikely) account of how she set the president straight in a private conversation with him. It’s not clear whether the Secret Service was standing by lest she, like Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, threatened to punch him out. She called Mr. Bush “oblivious, in denial, dangerous.” Harry Reid demanded the president account to him for the time spent clearing brush at Prairie Chapel Ranch, as if he should have been hitting the slots in Las Vegas. “Why didn’t President Bush return immediately from his vacation?”

When Rep. Diane Watson of California said “desperate people do desperate things,” she was “explaining” looters, robbers and rapists in the Big Easy, but she might have been talking about her Democratic colleagues in Washington. None of the mudballs they’ve thrown at George W. connect; most Americans don’t blame presidents for hurricanes. When Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. asked, “Who are we to say what law and order should be in this unspeakable environment?” he only reveals that he never listened in Sunday school. Lawlessness and disorder, whether by lynch mobs or by roaming robbers and rapists, is wrong. Democratic frustration runs at flood tide, with no relief in sight.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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