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The pursuit of ignorance

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, September 12, 2005

Three years ago, New York Times reporter Adam Cohen wrote a column titled “If the Big One Hits, New Orleans Could Disappear.” In his remarkably insightful article, he noted that America’s most “culturally rich city” was also “a disaster waiting to happen” because of its precarious position below sea level and in between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.

In other words, as Cohen wrote in 2002, “If a bad hurricane hit … the city could fill up like a cereal bowl, killing tens of thousands and laying waste to the city’s architectural heritage. If the Big One hit, New Orleans could disappear.”

Well, the Big One did hit, and New Orleans did fill up like a cereal bowl. Worst of all, when this horrific episode in American history is all said and done with, tens of thousands of people could very well turn out to have lost their lives at the hands of “the Big One.” The problem is, however, that the anarchy that has engulfed New Orleans for the past two weeks could have easily been prevented.

As Cohen noted in his prophetic story, Washington could have followed the lead of the Italian government, which invested over $3 billion into saving its own drowning city – Venice. In New Orleans, this could have been accomplished by various methods, including building a 30-foot wall across the city to hold back lake water or investing money into raising lake levees and saving the eroding coastal wetlands.

Instead, according to Cohen’s article, the head of the New Orleans Office of Emergency Preparedness at the time, Terry Tullier, merely chose to give his citizens disaster preparedness presentations in which he started by saying, “When the Big One comes, many of you will die – let’s get that out of the way.” (If that was the best disaster preparedness plan that the city could come up with, then maybe the New Orleans government was already suffering from one too many Hurricanes – the drink, not the storm, that is.)

Of course, ignoring warnings has become an unofficial American pastime as of late, so it comes as no surprise that the Big Easy wasn’t at all prepared to handle “the Big One.”

Only a week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it was uncovered that the FBI had learned in 1995 – and several dozen times afterwards – that terrorists with ties to Osama bin Laden had planned to hijack commercial planes and slam them into major U.S. targets, including buildings in New York and Washington. Of course, those warnings were largely ignored until after the fact.

Similarly, as the body count began to grow in Iraq, America learned that its government had been warned numerous times that their reasons for getting tied up in this Middle Eastern reincarnation of Vietnam – namely, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to Osama bin Laden – were false. Naturally, these warnings were ignored until it was too late as well.

Even with less-pressing issues, the United States seems bent on staying true to its “ignore it, then deplore it” outlook on life. For several years now, Americans have been inundated with warnings about over-eating and the health risks related to obesity. Eating fast food on a regular basis is like begging to be buried in an extra-wide casket, and everyone knows it. Nevertheless, recent studies have shown that eight percent of the American population is sucked into McDonalds every single day of the year! Not only does this explain why they stopped counting how many hamburgers they’ve sold on their signs, but it also provides another sickening example of U.S. citizens ignoring a blatant warning and suffering because of it.

In each of these cases, someone of authority has told America not to push the red button, and each time, without fail, Uncle Sam has stuck out his pudgy white hand and pushed defiantly. No wonder the rest of the world considers this country to be a bunch of cocky, self-serving imperialists.

The real question, of course, becomes why. Why does America do it? Who are we to laugh in the face of experts and go about living our lives as if we were somehow above the mundane trivialities of being a human?

Who was Michigan to sit around in their Big House with their No. 3 ranking and inept defense and expect to keep up with what some have called the “nastification” of Notre Dame football?

It seems as if no matter how many cities are destroyed, no matter how many buildings collapse, no matter how many soldiers are killed, no matter how many overweight people die of heart attacks, and no matter how many Wolverines go limping off the football field, America will never alter its pattern of ignoring the evidence first and pointing fingers (at federal agencies, former presidents, British people, fast food corporations or video replay referees) later. That’s just the American way, and one day, it’s going to be our downfall.

But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Joey Falco is a junior American Studies major. His column appears every other Monday. He can be contacted at jfalco@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.