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Remember the Heroes: Finger-Pointing Won’t Speed Gulf’s Recovery

In the movie “Apollo 13,” the true story of the ill-fated NASA moon mission, an explosion ruptures an oxygen tank and threatens the lives of the three astronauts on board. On day five, as Fred Haise and John Swigert begin to argue about who is to blame for the disastrous situation, Captain Jim Lovell steps in and tells them, “We’re not gonna go bouncing off the walls for the next 10 minutes cause we’re just going to end up right back here with the same problems. Trying to figure out how to stay alive.” [IMGCAP(1)]

Lovell understood that mistakes happen but playing the blame game, especially in the middle of a crisis, gets you nowhere. In fact, it can actually exacerbate the problems. That’s a lesson those seeking suitable whipping boys and girls to blame for the nation’s largest natural disaster ought to learn.

The winds of Hurricane Katrina were still roaring when Robert F. Kennedy Jr. lobbed the first shot with a truly ludicrous opinion piece on charging that Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s advocacy of certain energy policies, opposed by Kennedy, led to Katrina — partisan rhetoric that would be laughable were it not so poisonous. It’s been downhill from there in what has become a war of words between both political parties driven by a media eager to find a villain.

In contrast to the heroic pictures and stories that shaped America’s perceptions of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the days after, white hats got second billing to the blame game in this crisis when there were heroes — thousands of them.

Start with the courageous Coast Guard air rescue teams risking their own lives to save so many — old, young, black, white — trapped by the flood’s toxic waters as snipers took pot shots. The doctors and nurses staffing New Orleans’ hospitals, who chose to stay with their patients and in doing so, faced both Katrina’s fury and the aftermath that one described as “pure hell.”

There were other heroes. Americans who filled their cars with clothes and food and water, hit the highway and simply headed south. When they found someone in need, they stopped and helped. The thousands of caring men and women giving aid and comfort to devastated evacuees in shelters across the Gulf Coast. Corporations, led by Wal-Mart, answering the call to action, with millions of dollars in cash and aid.

Members of the National Guard, regular military, law enforcement officials and firefighters rallying from around the country to help restore the law and order to chaos. There were heroes in New Orleans and Pascagoula, Biloxi and Baton Rouge — plenty of them.

Sadly, most of their stories have been lost in the whirlwind of blame that has blown from New Orleans to Baton Rouge to Washington, D.C. and back again, shrill voices that publicly reject finger-pointing as they point their own fingers and drive us all apart.

No one denies that there were problems and that mistakes were made. Some were big and gut-wrenching and offended our sensibilities as Americans. The pictures of conditions at the Superdome were stark and terrible. But do we gain as a nation or as a people by focusing our efforts on assigning blame rather than learning from mistakes and looking for solutions? Have we reached a point where even the wildest of charges — that racial and class bias led to an indifferent response — are treated with destructive legitimacy? Are we so divided that even a catastrophe of this magnitude no longer brings us together as one people?

For most Americans, the ones who have donated more than $700 million to the relief effort, collected clothes and food, took in strangers and prayed for their fellow citizens, the answer is no. But if the political class refuses to declare a cease fire, Katrina may yet deliver another catastrophic blow — this one to our national unity — a precious commodity that must not be squandered in pursuit of cynical political goals.

If the unsung examples of courage and compassion and hope of the past two weeks reflect anything, it is that the people of this country, unlike our elected officials and the media, are worried less about placing blame and more about helping their fellow Americans in need.

Yes, polls show dissatisfaction with the relief and recovery efforts, but that unhappiness extends about equally to all levels of government. What America wants to see is less carping and more caring, less complaining and more solutions to fix the problems facing the Gulf Coast and the country.

Americans want to see a thoughtful, rational, politics-free review of what went wrong and what went right in the aftermath of Katrina — an after-action report that helps us be better prepared for the next “big one.” Just before Apollo 13 begins its risky re-entry into the atmosphere, two worried officials huddling in the control room fret about all the things that could go wrong.

“This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever experienced,” one says. Overhearing the pessimism, Flight Director Gene Kranz interrupts, “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.”

It is time politicians and the media move beyond viewing every situation — catastrophic or not — as a game that one side must win and the other must lose.

If we can stop looking for someone to blame and start worrying about the long road ahead, then, perhaps, Katrina can still be a story of rebirth and rebuilding through a unity of spirit and purpose that is uniquely American.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.