Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Hoping for the Apocalypse

Watching the unfolding story of Hurricane Katrina yesterday left me struggling, once again, with my own fascination with the apocalypse.

I've written, in other contexts, that this fascination pervades Western culture, and that it may have deeper roots in the human psyche. Witnessing or being a part of cataclysmic events, I've noted, seems to elicit a pair of responses, both of which are basically perverse: "Cool!" and "That'll teach 'em."

An event on the scale of last year's tsunami or yesterday's hurricane are sublime in their horror. It almost seems a privilege to live on a planet where such momentous things can happen. That's why we huddle around our TV sets, straining out bits of news - did the levees break, or not? - hoping to see something really awesome and unprecedented, to be a part of history in the making.

At the same time, such events can serve to humble those whose arrogance has (in "our" view) led them astray. So, those who think they can control rivers, and those who deny that global warming is happening, might finally have to admit that they were wrong. This is an especially insidious trap for environmentalists, frustrated by the recalcitrance of those in power.

In past years, I had heard scenarios whereby a major hurricane could render New Orleans uninhabitable for the indefinite future: flood waters fill the bowl beyond the capacity for pumps to remove it; the water is contaminated with sewage, dead bodies, and toxic wastes. What could be more momentous, more history-making, more humbling than the forced, wholesale abandonment of a major city, the final failure of all that the Corps of Engineers had tried to do to the lower Mississippi River, the revenge of an overheated Gulf?

I struggled with this all day yesterday, suppressing the impulse to hope that the worst would happen, and the perverse disappointment I felt that the levees seemed to be holding. I told myself, again and again, that these are my fellow humans who are in the path of the storm, who are losing their homes, their loved ones, their dignity, their lives. I should be casting my lot with them, pulling for them, hoping for the best.

I succeeded, in some measure, especially as the real news, the particular stories of people in New Orleans and, especially, along the coast of Mississippi, started to filter through the noise. Today, the fascination is gone; as the devastation sees the light of day, as the waters rise in New Orleans, there is only a kind of sick horror at the destruction left by the storm and some small hope that something can be salvaged from the wreckage. There's also the desire to do something, anything to help.

I guess the fascination with the apocalypse is only really tenable when it's abstract - or perhaps when it's distant in time and space. If it had happened here, or if I were a resident of New Orleans, I could not even have imagined hoping for the worst. Even at this safe remove, I realize, I have no business doing so.

(Though I do remember, when I was a child living in Ohio during the renowned Blizzard of '78, hoping that the power would go out so we could all sleep by the fireplace in the family room. Cool!)

(I later denied this when I wrote a report on the blizzard for school.)

I've thought for some time that I need to look more carefully into this matter of the apocalypse. Maybe this would be a good time.

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