Thoughts on Puerto Rico

Gentle Readers, I guess this is something I’ll be doing more often again for all the worst reasons.

Some people believe that moral responsibility comes from one’s actions, mixed to some degree with one’s intentions. Many also believe that what one doesn’t do doesn’t count. We never have an obligation to act, but by acting we can incur obligations on ourselves. Standing aside means one hasn’t done anything right, but also nothing wrong. I don’t buy that and, if you get right down to it, I don’t think many people really do. Rather inaction becomes innocent to us largely when we feel like we should do something, but haven’t.

That must sound judgmental; moral reasoning can’t manage any other way. What we do and what we don’t do touches the lives of others. We can’t foresee every possibility or imagine the chain of causation across the world and down centuries; it would be absurd to insist that we should and hold us responsible for failing at it. But we must take responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of our actions and inactions. We choose them at the same time as, and because of, the choices we make to act or not.

This brings me to Puerto Rico, now devastated by Hurricane Maria. Everyone who had any right or business to know knew that Maria would probably sweep over our colony and cause tremendous devastation. We knew it just like we knew Texas and Florida would need help when hurricanes struck them. The United States is a rich country with a ludicrously expensive military that boasts tremendous logistical capability. When disasters strike, it’s out job to step up and do what we can. We have the ability. If we lack the willingness, then we must admit what we have chosen: to let people suffer and die while we quietly watch. This is true anywhere in our impressive reach, but the way human beings inevitably operate we feel that obligation most keenly for people we consider our own.

Puerto Ricans are Americans, the same as I and most of you are. They have every right to expect their government, which is also ours government, to be ready on hand with plans, resources, vehicles, and people to come to their desperate aid. More people live on the island than in about half of our states, millions of lives at risk. The island lacks power and will for months. It’s residents face floods. Most of them have no clean drinking water. This is a humanitarian catastrophe that beggars belief. The Trump administration had no plan to help the island. They and the GOP majority in Congress now expect to vote some kind of aid bill through toward the middle of the month, which Washingtonian friends tell me means they might get it done by Christmas; I hope they’re wrong. The residents of Puerto Rico mostly don’t have white skin. If they did, the full logistical might of the United States government and its bottomless coffers would have opened for them. Supplies and aid workers would have been lined up to flow in. 

People have already died from American inaction. More will soon, possibly for months on end. Natural disasters claim lives and we can’t blame anyone. You can’t legislate away a hurricane or arrest a flood. But our government has chosen the side of the hurricane, whilst boasting of the insufficient amount of aid scraped together already. It has forbidden members of Congress from going to the island, for fear they will report the truth. The man at its head had more important things to do than help, namely picking Twitter fights with Puerto Rican politicians who go out in deep water by themselves to find people in need and improve his golf game at our expense. Most of those who die will be the most vulnerable, the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and children. I don’t know how to explain this except as an act of mass murder, done to the people of Puerto Rico in all our names. When Joseph Stalin orchestrated a famine in Ukraine, we didn’t shy away from calling it that. We must hold ourselves to the same standard. This is America in 2017. No one deserves to be treated so monstrously, but here we are.

Private charity can’t replace the resources of the American state -most charitable organizations actually rely on state aid to do their work- but if you can help, then here are some good organizations.

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