For the third time since George W. Bush became president, Americans are paying a catastrophic price for bad government. As the costs are tallied once more in death and dollars, we are being told that the wise and patriotic thing to do is shut up -- as if good citizens are obliged to remain silent about unwise and incompetent leadership.
Honest political debate over how and why we lost the great city of New Orleans, according to the latest dictates from the right, means "an excess of recrimination," "finger-pointing" and "villain hunting." Such a "vulgar" exercise risks overshadowing our normal national unity and generosity in confronting disaster with "divisiveness" and "partisanship." We are piously advised instead to do good and find common ground, to "be humble, compassionate and helpful." Thus speak the sages of the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal.
In short, we must simply write checks to the Red Cross and choke off any critical impulse.
Following such worthless advice would require us all to keep quiet even while the president of the United States again speaks falsely about matters of the utmost importance to the nation.
"I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees," he told Diane Sawyer on ABC's "Good Morning America."
That statement was wholly untrue, as Sidney Blumenthal noted on Wednesday in Salon -- and as the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., the former chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency all tried to warn in recent years. Cutbacks in funding for flood control and emergency preparedness by the Bush administration and the Republican Congress over the past several years probably made a terrible event much worse.
The president's defenders can tolerate no discussion of those realities, however, because they have no plausible answers. Instead they urge us all to keep quiet or be accused of undermining America.
Does this all sound strangely familiar, like a nightmarish flashback?
A repetitive pattern is emerging whenever a terrible event occurs that is due at least partly to governmental incompetence. The president and other high officials offer deceptive utterances to excuse themselves. And reinforcing their self-serving statements is a chorus of admonishments from the right against any dissent or criticism.
After 9/11, the White House falsely claimed that there had been no warnings and that the Bush administration had been preparing for an attack by al-Qaida since its earliest days in office. Anyone who said otherwise -- or who merely wanted to investigate the underlying weaknesses that had enabled the attackers -- was a "partisan" seeking to "undermine the war on terror."
There was also, we should recall, much chatter back in those dark times about the wonderful unity and generosity of the nation. That is true now and was true then, as far as it went. Unfortunately, the "united we stand" spirit didn't survive the moment when, several weeks after the 9/11 attacks, Bush advisor Karl Rove boasted to his fellow Republicans about his plan to use the war on terror to win the 2002 midterm elections.
The pattern continued with the invasion of Iraq, which has become a disastrous misadventure owing to the poor planning, inept management and mendacious propaganda of the White House. To examine the errors and lies that have landed our troops in quicksand and drained away hundreds of billions of dollars is to provide aid and comfort to America's enemies -- or so we have been warned, especially since the president's popularity ratings have been in free fall.
And now we are told that only bad people dare to criticize their bad government.
So we are not to mention the downgrading of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from a Cabinet-level agency to a neglected sideline of the Department of Homeland Security. We must not say that FEMA was turned away from its mission when the president replaced its superb director, James Lee Witt, with political cronies who knew nothing about disaster planning. We cannot talk about the consistent underfunding of the Army Corps of Engineers, whose efforts to rebuild the Louisiana levees practically halted because of budget cuts last year. Above all, we must never, ever ask whether global warming might be making the annual perils of tropical weather systems much, much worse.
None of this is to say that the hurricane is "Bush's fault," which would obviously be unfair. But as with 9/11 and Iraq, the president and his administration deserve to be held accountable for poor judgment, damaging decisions and false statements.
Neither bullying bluster nor banal pieties can deter candid debate about federal emergency planning and funding, the underlying causes of harsher hurricanes over the past few decades, and the crippling domestic costs of an expensive, unnecessary foreign war. The right's capacity to intimidate has been much diminished by the proven lies and failures of this administration.
We are likely to face still more fearsome challenges, from natural disasters and human enemies, in the months and years to come. The governing style and habitual dishonesty of the Bush Republicans represent a severe danger to our future well-being. Nobody should be afraid to say so.