My dogs are deathly afraid of bad weather so I was not surprised to wake up to a familiar nose-to-snout view of Wally's fearful eyes. Wally's a big baby. I went right back to sleep. Rain puts me into lala land.
I woke up to Mary's alarmed shout that water was coming in under the door.
I wasn't thinking. What triumphant showdown did I expect by opening the door? It swung open fast and I was washed backwards by filthy water. Still thinking of my water foe as a person, I scratched my way back to evict the intruder by slamming the door. Then I realized the door was the wrong focus. Standing in calf-high water, electrocution was only inches away from the electrical wall sockets.
I hadn't even gotten to main electrical power shutoff before Mary's next alarm. The outside water was now already up to the door handle. Whatever was causing this flood, we had to escape our drowning cage, immediately. Electrocution or not, re-opening the door would be our chance to escape. I shouted for her to “brace for a wave of water that'll knock you and the dogs off the bed then get out of here.” As I also readied myself for the surge I hoped the electrical current would be attenuated by the huge increase in water volume. But I couldn't open the door. Couldn't even twist the door knob. The weight of the water was exerting so much pressure on the door latch that it was immovable.
This flood was acting like all good predators, its killing assured before its victims recognize the danger. Precautions like escape drills or hatchets in the attic were irrelevant. I should have known the door wouldn't work. As a college freshman, I used to quietly push against the bottom of a dorm door then stuff pennies in the newly widened gap between door and frame to create the exact same pressure that the flood water was pushing against my door. "Penny-ing the door."
The water was rising so fast. There wasn't going to be heroic swimming to a soaring musical score or the inspired speeches of so many movies. Our last chance to escape was through the window but already the water was high enough to leak under the window.
In my mind, I was re-calibrating the danger. The water was rising too fast to be caused by rain. Something holding back massive amounts of water must have suddenly released. I'm thinking broken levees. A huge water main break? The killer Big Thompson River flash flood of my youth?
I am no longer dismissing Wally's over-wrought rainstorm fears. Now I am thinking big water. I'm thinking I am going to drown.
Fortunately, this was not Katrina's unending floodwaters. It was a couple weeks ago in a basement apartment in way-above-sea-level Baltimore (which has suffered through a year of unbelievable, record-breaking precipitation). Before I could break the window for our escape, the upstairs landlord splashed past the window to unplug the storm drain outside the door. Our perceptual fixation with the front door as the portal to danger meant we were simply watching a basement stairwell fill - hardly a killer flash flood. My ginned-up primal fear of drowning disappeared down a whirlpool.
However, it was a complete Katrina simulation. I felt the dire situation of those who stayed. The jammed door. The rapidly rising water. With nowhere to turn, the realization that the predator had me in its death grip.
The stimulation triggered physiological changes of a deep fear that only faded after we threw ourselves into the familiar clean up. Agitated and still hyper-aware, the jagged edges of buried Katrina memories broke through five years of dulling gloss and polish. I remember those who blamed us, New Orleanians, for our disaster and losses. The deep hurt returned.
Yeah, I know. Much of the blame-the-victim messaging was propaganda but propaganda doesn't grow legs and become effective unless it taps into the ugly anti-social elements that resides in everyone's brain stem. That core of our brain that we share with our very primitive and brutal ancestors. These primitive emotions are usually kept in check by our socialization but extreme emotions, and fear is one of the most extreme, can overcome our socialization.
When propaganda works, its message rides the emotion of fear straight into the brainstem, bypassing the elaborate rational filters of the upper brain. When my fear of drowning kicked in, I didn't think or even perceive properly. When I first opened the door I did not notice that just a few feet outside the stairwell the flood water was in the worst case, only high enough to reach my chest. Moments later I gambled with electrocution when with just a few more seconds of diligence I could have shut off the power main. Every decision I made was irrational, worsened the situation and directly imperiled us.
As painful as it is to admit, as my thoughts became more self-preservationist, even Mary faded from my consciousness as I focused on how was I going to save me. Fear is so dangerous, so destructive to civilization. Panicked decisions, even deeply damaging or fatal decisions are immediately acted upon without the skepticism or diligence applied to normal decisions as pedestrian as ordering a pizza topping. With fear, the focus is on "me" to the exclusion of "we." The antithesis of socialization. Of civilization. The classic fatal flaw of our species.
Katrina scared us. So did 9/11. The imagery of death and unchecked chaos profoundly shook the entire nation's sense of security. We all felt fear. Ugly fears that created rumors that fueled more fears. A breeder reactor of fear that also produced the toxic byproducts of hate and blame. I recall the racist chain-letter emails that were factually-impossible but still circulated much longer than the traditional chain-letter with its slightly-true Ponzi promise of personal rewards. Media professionals boldly spouting thinly disguised hate-speech. Governmental leaders profoundly blaming our societal mores for the disaster.
Our irrational fears and reactions to 9/11 and Katrina profoundly damaged us. There is the obvious damages caused by and to the New Orleans police department as they lost their once-vaunted reputation for crowd control and became the irrational violent mob they were supposed to control. Equally shocking is the loss of the philosophical bedrock of US foreign policy; "human rights." That foundation crumbled on the rash decision that torture as revenge, even as misdirected revenge, was acceptable after 9/11.
More subtle damage continues in the unfettered use of "fear" as an effective messaging tool. Fear messaging allows intellectual short-cuts to replace the solid foundation of a cogent, well thought-out message. Unfortunately, this short-cut includes a inherently dangerous embrace of human's fatal flaw. Just as my fear of drowning dangerously limited my perceptions and thinking, the widespread adoption of fear messaging since 9/11 and Katrina has similarly limited the nation's perceptions and thinking.
On this, the anniversary of 9/11 and Katrina, I remember nine years and a day ago when the US was a hopeful nation that looked at events not in fear but as achievable challenges. We wanted objective factual information because we felt there was nothing we couldn't beat. Nothing we couldn't manage. We were rational. Considered even. We were so confident and hopeful.
Our pre-9/11 approach created a fabulously rich nation with far more freedoms than we allow ourselves to personally exercise. We have the lowest tax rates in the world and a tweak to the tax rate of a couple percentage points creates an annual profit or loss for the nation. This with only about half of the population even paying income taxes. Unique to all countries, we can absorb hard hits like disasters, a global economic meltdown and fighting two wars (with an effective all volunteer military) and still remain under a 10% unemployment rate. Philosophically we challenged opposing countries who responded by wasting their capital reserves on nuclear bombs, client-states and big militaries to counter us. All were counter-productive efforts crushed under the weight of our "human rights" foreign policy.
What do we have today that is so freighting, so urgent and earth shattering?
Putting today in context, it was unimaginably worse when a depression-era pre-World War II FDR gave us the guidance that, "...there is nothing to fear but fear itself." In my remembrances of 9/11 and Katrina anniversaries, the people who died, were maimed or directly impacted by these tragedies rightfully experienced their fears and reactions. The rest of us aren't included. Seeing a compelling television portrayal of their tragedy doesn't include us as a participant or victim.
We're the audience. Our role is to get the nation out of it's fear funk and return to the days before 9/11 introduced irrational fear into a successful nation. Our job is to retain the good life that these and all other disaster survivors feared they would lose.
As a mere child I learn that ignoring an acting-up kid will break them of their attention-demanding behavior. At the same time, Joe McCarthy was defanged by the nation collectively rolling its eyes and ignoring his run of fear-based tyranny.
Today's media is so fragmented and competitive that it scraps for even a moment or your attention. Careers, government policy and fortunes are made and lost by someone's effectiveness in capturing mere seconds of your attention. Magnifying anything into a calamity is about the only way to break through the noise. These are the tactics of the scoundrels in all their forms; from racist e-mail authors to traditional media to terrorist to six year old.
On the anniversaries, re-take control over your consciousness. Ignore the attention demanders for a week and you'll probably conclude their alarmist frets are pretty trivial. They're mostly existentialist fears whipped up by folks fighting to get your attention. Consider them as an acting-up child. Your life, the nation, civilization does better when you don't succumb to fear.
Saturday night midnight until 3am Sunday.