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Katrina divides rather than unifies U.S.
Updated: 2005-09-09 18:35

The extraordinary showing of national and political unity displayed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is nowhere to be found in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Finger pointing and blame games have replaced the images of stunned Americans rallying around President Bush and of members of Congress standing on the steps of the Capitol singing "God Bless America."

The two events are similar in terms of the amount of devastation wrought — possibly thousands of deaths, billions of dollars in structural damage and many, many lives turned upside down.

But it's the differences, observers say, that explain why a majority of the public and some lawmakers rushed to criticize Bush's response to Katrina and the flooding and subsequent evacuation of New Orleans.

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, says the post-9/11 sense of unity was mostly a response to Americans feeling attacked by an external enemy.

"The biggest difference here," he said, "is we don't have an enemy to focus our anger on."

Daniel Laufer, who studies the public's response to crises, said the desire to place blame is natural. But it's harder, he says, for people to scapegoat a faceless intangible like Mother Nature as opposed to a real person like Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"That's a face you can point to, bin Laden," said Laufer, who teaches marketing at the University of Cincinnati. "A hurricane, Mother Nature, the environment, that is not something people want to blame."

Two-thirds of the public, according to the latest Pew poll, and lawmakers of both parties blame Bush, who is one face of a federal government they say was too slow to respond. Another face is Michael Brown, the nation's disaster relief director who some lawmakers say should resign or be fired.

In turn, the federal government has blamed both state and local officials.

In contrast, Bush's approval ratings shot up past 90 percent in the weeks after the terrorist attacks.

After 9/11, "There was a surge in patriotic feeling which had to do with being in a common boat," political psychologist Stanley Renshon says. While Hurricane Katrina horrified everyone, it directly damaged a particular region and not the nation as a whole.

"It's not the story of one guy on the top and how he'll respond to an unprecedented attack on the American national community," says Renshon, who teaches at the City University of New York. "This is a story about the layers of government that are supposed to be effective and wind up having lots of difficulties doing what they're supposed to do."

Hence, the blame game.

With Hurricane Katrina and the events of the past week and a half, it's difficult to figure out which member of a large cast of players is responsible, Renshon said.

"When there's so many cooks working the stew, it's hard to know who put in the vinegar," he said.

Four years ago, the Sept. 11 attacks buoyed Bush and his leadership credentials, and helped him win a second term. The attacks on New York City and Washington, which killed nearly 3,000 people, united the political parties behind a promise to protect the country from whatever terror was to come next.

Democrats and Republicans worked together to create the Homeland Security Department and put it in charge of dealing with natural disasters and terrorist attacks. They approved billions of dollars in post-9/11 spending and agreed on major anti-terrorism legislation.

That consensus eventually dissipated after the invasion of Iraq and as questions grew about whether the federal government could have done more to head off the terrorist attacks.

Now, in Katrina's wake, about all the nation's political leaders have agreed on so far is approving the new spending, more than $62 billion, needed to help the disaster-stricken communities along the Gulf Coast.

On Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate said they would not appoint anyone to a proposed, Republican-led congressional committee that is to investigate the Bush administration's storm response. Many Democrats prefer an investigation by an independent committee.

In one sense, however, the public response to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina is similar: Donations of money are flooding into relief agencies. People are donating supplies and welcoming into their homes many of the tens of thousands of New Orleans evacuees now scattered across the country.

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