Invariably, my Roman friends pepper me with "how" questions. How can the United States...? Or, how could George Bush think that...? These questions typically involve the same central quandaries: did the Bush Administration have any idea what is was doing in waging war in Iraq? Do Americans give a damn about the environment? Why is it that the richest nation on earth has so many impoverished citizens (37 million) and citizens without health care coverage (45 million)?
For Europeans, the last question sums up the least defensible aspect of the American way of life. Europeans don't necessarily see universal health care so much as an obligation to provide a safety net for society's most sickly and vulnerable, but rather it is seen as a wise investment. It makes good economic, social, political and practical sense to invest in the health and vitality of your country. Plus, it's just a decent thing to do -- to look after your neighbor in a time of need. There is no so-called "European way of life", but if there was the central idea would be: everybody contribute to a state that looks out for everybody. Sounds kinda nice, particularly as we see images of some of the poorest Americans dying on the streets of New Orleans because of neglect from an inept and uncaring government.
Typically, I deflect questions about my country with a groan, an offer of more wine, or, if I am really desperate, I bring up the latest Bank of Italy scandal. But last night the questions were coming at me too fast and furiously. I was inundated with questions about New Orleans. Practical questions.
Why can't the United States evacuate all those poor people? It's New Orleans, not Bangladesh.
We grew up believing the United States could conquer all. We saw movies where you defeat space aliens, where poor, hard-working men and women become huge successes. But now we see on TV so many Americans neglected and left to die. How can this be?
This last question goes well beyond New Orleans. The wonder is what if a Katrina-like disaster hit Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta or New York? Who would make it out alive? Looked at with this sense of bafflement it begins to explain (but cannot possibly forgive) the frustration and rage of the snipers and looters. Peering through this lens, systematic neglect -- a neglect that has its roots in the essential concept of the American way of life where your obligation of care is limited to your family, but not your neighbor -- is as indefensible as firing a gun at a rescue helicopter. Curiously, the italiani never asked me last night why a person would fire a gun at a belated helping hand extended from the government. Now, I wonder why do you think that is?