Hurricane Irene: Why the U.S. Thrives on Doom

As Irene slinks away, Lee Siegel asks why the U.S. always seems to need a doomsday.

Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

I am, at the moment, sitting in my suburban New Jersey home surrounded by $50 worth of candles, $40 worth of canned goods, five flashlights, four dozen batteries, 10 books of matches, enough bottled water to irrigate a small desert, windows plastered with duct tape, and our 5-year-old son dashing around the house wearing a plastic firefighter’s hat and strangely exhorting his bewildered 11-month-old sister to hold her breath. Yet as I sit prepared for what newscasters are still calling the “monster storm of the century,” and President Obama himself proclaimed a “historic hurricane,” the weather event of the century is being downgraded into a run-of-the-mill tropical storm, the rain has stopped, and the sun is out.

I have one question: apocalypse …when?

Perhaps the hysterical reaction to the wimpish Irene was the result of the disappointment wreaked on the region last week, when the “earthquake” in Virginia turned out to be nothing more than a slight shudder. Of course, that didn’t prevent the media from weaving vast doomsday scenarios, as the airwaves sizzled with talk of templates and temblors, falling buildings and tsunamis, comparisons to the earthquakes in Japan and Indonesia. Reporters were sent throughout D.C. with orders to scour national monuments in hopes of finding a crack, a chip, a nick, a suspicious discoloration in our sacred marble.

But, alas, nothing significant was stumbled upon. There was no major earthquake and no tsunami. No flattened cities or towns. No hundreds of thousands injured and killed. Bummer. Let’s go back to Bill in the studio to see if the stock market crashed, the Tea Party has overthrown the government, terrorists have attacked Brooklyn, something, anything!

As we gear ourselves up for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, during which we will self-indulgently reenact the events and the emotions of that terrible day ad nauseam, far beyond the boundaries of necessary remembrance, it’s clear that we have become a nation of hysterics.

The stock market dips a couple of hundred points in a routine fluctuation, and a second Great Depression is right around the corner. The government is about to default on its debt, and we are on the verge of mass destruction. A few people come back from trips to Mexico with a mysterious summer flu, and a fatal plague looms.

It is human to worry and prepare, but you expect more from our leaders. Yet the Obama who hysterically declared Hurricane Irene “historic” also declared the swine flu a national emergency. At a time of the most draconian budget cuts, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took the unprecedented step of evacuating large sections of New York, as well as shutting down the mass-transit system, before Irene struck. Here in the Garden State, Gov. Chris Christie dramatically announced, in one of three press conferences in just over 24 hours, that there was no need to worry because he had been consulting with governors Haley Barbour and Bobby Jindal and former governor Jeb Bush on how to respond to hurricanes. What a relief.

You had to wonder, in the midst of all the tumult, why the scientists and meteorologists interviewed by the media agreed that Irene would have an apocalyptic force. Was there not, in this great big country of infinite viewpoints and exuberant dissent, one expert who had a different take? How strange that even as Irene “slammed” into the Bahamas, there was not a single report of death from the Bahamas. Not a single spine-chilling video clip. By the time the storm reached New York, the handful of deaths, physical damage, and power outages reported from the path Irene had already traveled were in line with the effects of every standard, late-summer storm.

Yes, the media needs its audience, the politicians need their federal money to balance their state budgets now more than ever—how else do you think Texas and Florida would balance their budgets if not for all that hurricane money from the Feds?—and, as we hear again and again, it is better to be safe than sorry.

After Katrina, we are also told, our elected officials are acting responsibly by acting hysterically. But Katrina packed 175 mph winds, the levees broke, and New Orleans is a Southern city, which makes it vulnerable to horrendous weather fueled by the warm ocean. Long before Bloomberg, Christie et al. implemented their emergency measures, Irene’s winds were barely topping 100 mph, and even the brainwashed meteorologist-experts were predicting that it would become a tropical storm as it moved northward—though we should not “let our guard down,” as I heard one say. There was simply no reason to think Irene would be anything like Katrina. But, for all the teeming variety in our public life, not a single public figure ventured to suggest that we were overreacting.

Is it 9/11 that has made us feel so perennially vulnerable? Not likely, since the end-of-millennium Y2K scare was just as hysterical as the response to Irene. Is it the desperate media, the desperate politicians, the rising punitiveness toward our elected representatives if they appear to falter even slightly in their obligations to us (e.g., Bloomberg’s inept response to last December’s blizzard and his public excoriation)? Are we simply bored, in the manner of late, decadent civilizations, absolutely jaded by ever more sophisticated, graphic, instantly gratifying, adrenaline-pumping forms of entertainment and distraction? Do we need the ever-escalating high of impending disaster to keep us awake?

All those reasons probably have something to do with the instant hysteria with which we respond to the slightest hint of calamity. But perhaps the most plausible reason for our wild response is that weather is authentic, while our public life is more and more fabricated. We long for the clarifying crisis because the response to it is clear and direct. We will know, as a nation, what to do in response to a disaster. In every other area of politics and social issues, we have no idea, as a nation, what to do.

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We even have a tendency to portray politicians whom we hope will be redemptive in meteorological terms. Remember when Obama was presented as an elemental form of hope, like a jubilant earthquake that would topple and smash our rotten politics? Now, however, he approaches public life the way he approaches hurricanes and swine flu: cautious, fearful, and appeasing, with a kind of repressed hysteria. If Bush was too quick to pull the trigger, Obama is reluctant ever to pull the gun out of its holster.

If Irene teaches us anything—how we love our “lessons”—it’s that we need politicians who have the character to wait calmly and courageously until, as it were, the storm’s shape is clear, and then calmly and courageously spring into action. Neither trigger-happy nor hesitant, but steely, self-possessed, and clear-eyed. Alas, my son’s instructions notwithstanding, I won’t hold my breath.