Topic: Society

The Lie That Wasn’t

This commentary nearly ended up in the Easy Calls section of the Scoreboard, as it would seem to be obvious that it is wrong to call someone a liar when all human experience tells us that he is telling the truth. But the truth in question is one that human beings seem incapable of learning. There is nothing easy about it.

The outrage and ridicule coming from some quarters regarding President Bush’s statement that “nobody anticipated” the levees to fail is misplaced, and if the critics were less self-righteous and more honest with themselves, they would recognize that this was a more perceptive statement than they would like to admit. Bush was not “lying,” by saying this, for it is undeniably, incredibly, typically true. Although Bush is notoriously careless in his choice of words, it is clear from the context of his comment that he used “anticipated” to mean “expected,” its primary definition. He did not use it to mean “predicted.” In the difference lies tragedy, but not dishonesty.

Whatever anyone says now, the preparation for Hurricane Katrina at all levels of government clearly showed that while everyone “knew” the levees might break or even were likely to break, nobody had really accepted the fact and expected that they would break. If the Mayor of New Orleans really expected it, he would have insisted on a genuinely mandatory exodus, using city buses, calling for airlifts, carrying people out of houses and rest homes if necessary. If the Governor of Louisiana expected it, she would have demanded that the Federal government have the Coast Guard poised for a massive rescue effort. If Bush’s advisors had expected it, they would have urged him to leave Crawford in anticipation of the certain disaster. But nobody ever really expects a worst case scenario until it occurs, because worst case scenarios occur so rarely and are so frequently averted by chance that a potent combination of optimism, hope and dread infects even the most clear-eyed analyst. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu unwittingly demonstrated this perfectly as she was televised flying over New Orleans and dissolving into tears. “I never, never thought I would see anything like this!” she said to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. About two minutes later she was saying angrily, “We had been warning the federal government for years! Why weren’t they ready?”

Because they “never, never thought they would see anything like this,” Senator. You should understand.

Writer William Saroyan, one of the keenest observers of human character, understood. He captured the truth when he said, “Everybody has got to die but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.” We can predict, conclude and know that the worst is likely to happen, but anticipate it? Human beings don’t do that, and for the most part, it is our salvation. This sweet self-deception allows us to accomplish great things without being paralyzed by worry and fear. It also renders us vulnerable when the worst actually does occur. Bush wasn’t lying. It was an admission of a weakness. He was expressing a solid truth about human beings that we should try to remember the next time a worst-case scenario looms. But being human, we almost certainly won’t.

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