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Never Again

February 28th, 2006 by dk

For six months, regular Americans have been trying to complete the sentence that begins, “Never again …” It’s not been an easy assignment. Eugene resident Perry Patterson may be able to offer us some help.

A sprawling hurricane bears down on one of America’s most distinctive cities; flood walls are breached, homes are destroyed, relief efforts are often botched, and we watch authorities tie corpses to lampposts to prevent the bloated bodies from clogging drains. Our president arrives four days after the disaster strikes (the same amount of time it took him to reach the rubble that was the World Trade Center four years earlier) and seems to make things worst with his rolled-up-sleeved “heckuva job Brownie” photo op.

Americans were angry and dismayed at how these events unfolded. But there was and remains a sense of powerlessness. Charities note remarkable generosity, the local Red Cross has a waiting list for volunteering, displaced students are welcomes into our schools and families into our homes. These contributions focus on repair and recovery, not prevention.

The assignment hangs over us, unfinished. Is there anything we can do to prevent any of these cascading disasters from befalling our fellow Americans? Is there any way for us to stand firm and say “Never again”?

Weather is not something we can control, though we can improve our technologies for predicting a storm and warning those who may be affected. The flood walls and levees, it turns out, were not built with the right materials; we can hope the government oversight of public works projects like those will be improved. We can offer to pay more in taxes so these responses can be improved.

But these resolutions are still too abstract, too removed from the horrors of last September to satisfy. We want a direct-action “Let’s roll” response that we can do ourselves to prevent this from happening again.

We can’t tell people not to build in flood plains. We can’t make cities leave waterfront undeveloped, just in case. We can’t insist that National Guardsmen not treat corpses so blithely. We can’t impeach a president for not having the right words of comfort.

The question remains. What can we do in response?

Here’s a suggestion. Never again vote for a presidential candidate who won’t meet all comers. He or she may be called on to speak for all of us when the unspeakable occurs. A campaign is where they learn how.

The case of Perry Patterson is still wending its way through the legal system. When Vice President Dick Cheney came to Eugene for Campaign 2004, Perry got a ticket to the event. She wasn’t asked to sign a loyalty pledge. She followed the rules. During the event, she began to say “No, no, no, no” and security personnel approached her. When they asked her to leave, she asked on what grounds. As private property, the owner of the airplane hangar had the right to ask her to leave, but these men weren’t owners. Patterson was charged with trespassing, and now she is considering a lawsuit against the security detail.

The point is that the speaker was invited and he intended to speak only to those in agreement with his point of view. In campaigning, you don’t need to speak to all the people; you need only a few more than half the people and that’s enough.

Enough for campaigning, and maybe also enough for governing most of the time. But once in a while, something unthinkable happens: Oklahoma City Bombing, San Francisco Earthquake, Torpedoed Trade Center Towers, the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster. We give them capital letters because everything stopped when we heard. For that moment, we wanted to be One. On 9/11, we were all New Yorkers.

For those moments when we want to be One, only one person can speak for us. Rudy Giuliani couldn’t do it in 2001, and nobody but the president could do it in 2005. But how do we know we’ve voted for a person who can do it if we’ve never seen them try?

Political campaigns are auditions for an important role, one that we hope our favorite candidate will never have to play. But a campaign is — or should be — more than an audition. It’s also training, training to speak to and for all the people, training that can’t be done later.

Each of us plays a role in preparing our favorite candidate for that terrible task. If a candidate asks for your vote, but he or she restricts who they meet during the campaign, smile and shake their hand, but tell them firmly: “Never again.”

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  • 1 BillThePoet Mar 10, 2006 at 5:29 pm

    As usual, I’m insanely jealous of dk’s wit and rhetorical power. And as usual, I see the same accident from a different corner. (And I was standing on that different corner long before “Crash” was filmed.)

    I lived amongst them in DC for a year — oops, seven dog years.

    My personal plan is to make winning candidates less relevant to my life, not make them answer my questions.

    Long, long ago when I was a kid, it wasn’t against any federal law to murder anyone, so there wasn’t a reason to ask about national hate or terror crime legislation.

    There wasn’t any federal funding for local schools, so there wasn’t a reason to ask about vouchers or No Child Left Behind funding.

    A tornado wiped out several homes in my neighborhood around 1970, but there wasn’t a FEMA, so there wasn’t a federal cronie-lawyer occupying a patronage job to bitch at. I mean, direct questions toward.

    My never-again proposition is to never elect anyone who proposes or supports government intrusion where it doesn’t belong.

    My never agains plus dk’s never agains might make a difference. We win if either or both of us are successful.