Labeling disasters

I've been thinking a lot about how we name tragedy and where the words we choose come from. Last night, I was listening to George Galloway debate Christopher Hitchens at Baruch College, and both of them referred to 9/11 in ways that I didn't think were appropriate; they were both sort of flippant about it at points, and Hitchens' comments in particular didn't set well. (Shocker, I know. Part of it's his Oxford accent which automatically makes whatever is coming out of his mouth sound elitist and jerky. I guess he can't help that.) As they moved on to talk about New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, both of them used different phrases across the board to describe the deafening waste that is now that region.

It got me thinking back to the days shortly after the terrorist attacks in New York (where I live), D.C. and Pennsylvania. We were dumbfounded to the point that no one could think of naming it. The first label that came was "the tragedy." We didn't know what else to think. Some people said "the attacks" but that wasn't the mood of the city in the first few days, I don't recall.

I remember my friend Libby telling me she hated that label, the tragedy label, because it felt like marketing for an event. It was a corner-logo in the TV screen; the Onion came up with the only logo, by the way, that really summed it up: a crosshairs over a picture of the Trade Center, with the words: "HOLY F***ING SH*T: ATTACK ON AMERICA." Finally, everyone seemed to settle on the date as the reference point. It conjured up "emergency 911," without any of the other emotions, so it could be manipulated as necessary. I still don't like it.

And now, what will we call the devastation not just wrought Hurricane Katrina itself, but the abandonment of entire groups of people by various levels of government? Will we say "the devastation?" Will it be "9/05?" How about "Katrina" or just "the Hurricane?" Those last two completely remove responsibility right there, so they're prime for pickin's by the administration, I'm sure. I wonder what Barbara "Marie Antionette" Bush is thinking of calling it...

My own choice will be something along the lines of, "That time the government completely abandoned the poor of New Orleans and elsewhere, and it's disproportionately African-Americans who are below the poverty line. Y'know, when they let our own people rot in waste, misery and devastation during September 2005." I just haven't figured out how to streamline it yet.


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