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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Good That an Ill Wind Blows

If Sept. 11, 2001 showed how much the world had changed, then Aug. 29 showed how much it hadn't. Four years ago, when terrorists crashed jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, history was cleaved into the era before 9/11 and the era after. Will the latter date, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast, prove to be a similar demarcation line?

Both days laid bare intractable problems, but in the case of 9/11, blame for the tragedy was clear: Terrorists had attacked America. Bound by a common enemy, Democrats and Republicans enjoyed an unusual period of civility and cooperation.

No such period exists today. In part, this is because the differences 9/11 glossed over are now plain; liberals and conservatives disagree about a lot of things, including the best way to fight a war against terrorists. In the aftermath of Aug. 29, unlike Sept. 11, the politics are more vicious because the enemy is less obvious. In other ways, Aug. 29 showed the government, at all levels, to be just as unprepared and incompetent -- although in new and distressing ways -- as it was before Sept. 11.

One of the ideas making the rounds among commentators since Aug. 29 is that the hurricane may lead Americans to expect more from their government, which is really the only entity that can respond to a disaster of this magnitude. If this is true, it has profound implications not just for the war in Iraq but for domestic policy and politics.

But it is at least possible that Aug. 29 could have the opposite effect, causing people to give up on their government. That's what many along the Gulf Coast did, after all, when they realized no help would be forthcoming. And Americans donated record amounts to charities and relief groups that were seen as more nimble and efficient than the government.

We always knew that the fight begun four years ago Sunday would be, in U.S. President George W. Bush's words, "a long struggle." Yet he never really asked for sacrifice; to the contrary, he offered tax cuts and entreaties to "fly and enjoy America's great destination spots."

The impulse may have been admirable -- many Americans longed for a return to normality in the weeks and months after Sept. 11 -- but the costs were great. Americans and their government struck a deal: Neither demanded much from the other.

This year, the memories of Sept. 11 are filtered through the tragedy still unfolding along the Gulf Coast. The larger lessons of Hurricane Katrina have yet to be learned, partly because its full impact has yet to be felt. But maybe now Americans can have the debate about the role of government that they never had after Sept. 11.

This comment first ran as an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, where it appeared in longer form.