Hurricanes are usually occasions for the public to complain about a lack of preparation by their leaders. That would explain some of the dismay over the primary-season comments by Mitt Romney about disbanding federal disaster relief. But the bigger surprise this week has been the willingness of elected leaders to push back against citizens who didn’t — or wouldn’t — do enough to protect themselves. These targets included not only those YouTube daredevils who gloried in the risks, but ordinary people who insisted on going to work even as the winds picked up, or who failed to secure their homes and boats and cars.
For all the talk about what government owes its citizens, an equally compelling discourse focuses on an individual’s responsibilities to society. The notion of a social contract between leaders and their followers, explored by philosophers like John Locke who helped to inspire America’s revolution, concentrated as much on the duty of citizens as it did on their governments.
From the White House to the state houses, the tough, aggressively honest, and sometimes frustrated statements from those who govern were intended to remind the governed that the social contract is a two-way street. As the hurricane approached on Monday, many politicians who spent much of the last year courting voters for their party’s presidential nominees dumped the flirtations. They sounded more like Thomas Hobbes, who pungently described a world in which life was “nasty, brutish, and short.”
“There will undoubtedly be some deaths.
. . . The more responsibly citizens act, the fewer people will die,” Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley predicted accurately on Monday, calling casualties all but “inevitable.” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo angrily responded to reporters that morning: “Do not underestimate this storm; we are talking about surges we have not seen before.” Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick warned that citizens had better “plan for the worst.”
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose subsequent compliments of President Obama are viewed as newsworthy in our polarized political environment, was nothing less than peeved when citizens undermined his evacuation orders. Holdouts on the shore were both “stupid and selfish,” he declared, echoing his own “get the hell off the beach” edict from Hurricane Irene last year.
And then there was Obama himself, whose address to the nation lacked his signature notes of hope and change: “Listen to your state and local leaders,” he urged, delegating down. He could promise no specifics in terms of quick recovery. All will not be well, he suggested soberly.
These statements were intended to protect lives — especially the lives of the first responders who are called in when some citizens act “stupid and selfish.” In the world of disaster management, the social contract has been placing more burdens on the government with no expressed obligations on citizens.
The flawed federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was rightly criticized — but the condemnations may have gone overboard in creating an expectation that the federal government can simply step in and make everything better. In fact, behind the federal government’s failure in New Orleans were others, including police corruption, unmitigated poverty, shoddy construction, and poor maintenance of local infrastructure.
Now, all the attention is on New York City — a city with as much vulnerable architecture as New Orleans, but with more resources — and there are confident refrains that its public works and transportation systems will be back up and running soon.
But if we want more from government, then government may want more from us. And that includes earlier and smarter preparations, from shoring up creaky infrastructure to securing vulnerable homes and property. That sentiment was behind all the exhortations from politicians over the past week.
Anger motivates; it can be a welcome emotion. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there are no terrorists or criminals to complain about. It is all on us. Governor Christie, at least, seemed ready to take the fight forward: “[W]e have a little more reason to be angry after this. Just what we need in New Jersey, a chance to be a little more angry.”
It may be just what we all need.