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The Worst Gets Worse

    I arrived this afternoon in Kyoto, the ancient capital, land of many temples and shrines, a place the guidebook says you should spend 10 days exploring. I looked at the clock in the train station and figured I had an hour before I needed to hop the bullet train to Tokyo. I could hire a cab and do a drive-by of some of the sights, take some snapshots in which a holy place a thousand years old appears as a blur. The only time I ever saw the Grand Canyon was on the press plane covering a Clinton trip, and we were there maybe 3 hours, most of it built around a photo op at the rim, with Robert Redford. I glanced over the precipice for maybe 30 seconds before hacking out some copy in the Filing Room. Yes, Redford wasn't very tall -- other than that, I just saw a hole. I've had more vivid experiences by ViewMaster.

    The Kyoto decision was easy, actually. There's a fire bell you can hear around the world. I went straight to the Internet cafe to read the news about New Orleans. The temples and shrines will still be there next time.

    It's hard to pay attention to Japan when something so awful is happening back home. The images here and there could not be more different. The Japanese in many ways have mastered the art of human dignity, from their prolonged, sumptuous meals, to their strict rules of interpersonal conduct, to their love of a long soak in a hot mineral spring.

    Back home the situation is inverted in every way. Katrina has not only killed a lot of people, it has dehumanized hundreds of thousands more. The Post site has a photo of a dead man in a chair -- where is the dignity in that? Not since 9/11 have we had to deal with such a feeling of this-can't-be-happening. Civilization never becomes so clear a concept as when it breaks down completely.

     (The Japanese TV has shown an awful lot of images of looters. I wonder if that aspect of the story is somewhat overplayed, because it feeds stereotypes.)

    The worst seems to get worse day by day. It's frustrating to observe from afar, from Japan, and I bet from just about everywhere in America, too. As citizens of an affluent nation full of resources, we have always had a can-do attitude, and you figure there's got to be a way to pluck people from rooftops and swamped freeways, give them water and food, set up basic sanitation. I'm sorry to ask such a dumb question from the other side of the world, but why is it taking so long to help to these people? Maybe Bush will fix things when he goes down there today. Assuming he doesn't just fly over again and peek out the window.

    I feel like I'm rambling a bit, but it's therapy. This doesn't seem like a natural disaster at this point. It's a failure of human leadership. It has been years in the making, days in the execution. Tens of thousands of people have been living below sea level in New Orleans, their vulnerability largely ignored despite many warnings. You could blame them for not leaving sooner, but people with few resources can't just gas up the mini-van and drive off to find a Hampton Inn, with a stop at Applebee's on the way. They made a calculation that they could ride it out. A storm blew in, as storms have since the dawn of time. Water ran downhill.

By Joel Achenbach  |  September 2, 2005; 8:06 AM ET
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