Twice during the past six months, I've traveled to the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, the neighborhood infamously ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. As a New Yorker, I have reason to pass within sight of Ground Zero, site of the former World Trade Center, at least every few weeks.
These incidental pilgrimages have taken on extra meaning for me lately, during the two-week period that includes the anniversaries of both Katrina's landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, and the Al Qaeda terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. And in ruminating on those dates and these places, it is impossible not to feel disappointed, even disgusted, by my country.
These sensations hit me in an especially heightened way in the aftermath of a recent visit to Israel, where for whatever else ails the nation and the body politic, it seems at least to my visitor's eyes to have succeeded in exactly the ways American has so vividly failed in the Lower Ninth and at Ground Zero — in memory, in reconstruction.
Any sensate American exhaled with relief when Hurricane Gustav battered at New Orleans without managing to breach the levees as Katrina so catastrophically did. The near-miss, however, should not become the occasion for any broader sort of national self-congratulation.
The situation in the Lower Ninth makes for a continuing indictment of the Bush Administration as well as the incompetent Democrats in the local and state governments of New Orleans and Louisiana. Had the levee broken again this week, the second-biggest scandal would have been how little there was in the Lower Ninth to destroy. You can drive block after block through the Lower Ninth, as I did in both March and July, and find only isolated homes rebuilt.
If you want to understand the built-in limits of even the most noble, idealistic sort of voluntarism, look around New Orleans at all the kids from colleges, churches and synagogues in their matching shirts from this or that disaster-relief group — look at all that sincere compassion — and then count up the number of houses it has managed to erect.
Wandering the overgrown desolation of the Lower Ninth makes me think of the development towns — drab, yes, but inhabitable — that a young, poor Israel created for hundreds of thousands of refugees. The mighty, wealthy United States could have learned from the example. At my most cynical times, I'm tempted to suggest that we solve two problems in one fell swoop by sending all the settlers from Samaria to the Lower Ninth and telling them the government has expressly forbidden any settlements from being built there. In no time at all, there'd be caravans linked up to power lines.
A different Israeli point of reference comes to mind in considering Ground Zero. An American friend of mine visited Jerusalem soon after the Sept. 11 attacks and was walking with an Israeli companion past the Sbarro restaurant that had been devastated by a suicide bomber. The Israeli pointed out that within weeks of the bombing, the restaurant had been fixed up and reopened, which, of course, is the Israeli norm. As for the World Trade Center, the Israeli told my friend, "You should build it back up to the sky. You can't let them win."
Well, as the seventh anniversary of Sept. 11 nears, the construction of the so-called Freedom Tower has made it about 25 feet above ground level. A leading official of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the public body responsible for the site, has cast doubt on the proposed completion date of 2011, leading to speculation that 2013 might be more plausible.
There are plenty of logical reasons for the slow pace. Still, only a certain failure of will and a certain psychic exhaustion can round out the explanation for the tardy, tedious effort at rebuilding.
Year after year, the commemoration of Sept. 11 has diminished and turned more rote. The date itself has been reduced to the cold, impersonal cliche 9/11. The tragedy has become merely a campaign symbol. The sluggish pace at Ground Zero, so little to show after seven years, has indeed, as my friend's Israeli comrade worried, given a kind of victory to Al Qaeda.
There are houses in the Lower Ninth. There are construction crews and equipment at Ground Zero. But in a deeper way, each of these places, which should be consecrated ground, remains inexcusably barren.
Samuel Freedman is a New York City-based columnist.