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Is the oil spill our environmental 9/11?

It's a risky comparison, because of all we lost that day, both in terms of lives and innocence. But as an economic and psychic blow, is the spill any less devastating to those living through it?
Oil surrounds the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico near the coast of Louisiana.Jae C. Hong / AP
/ Source: Politics Daily

For five weeks now — although it sure feels longer — we've been arguing over whether this BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is or is not Obama's Katrina. But in South Louisiana, that comparison lost its juice a while ago. "This is worse than Katrina,'' shrimper Floyd Robin told Politics Daily's Ben Sandmel. Now a worst-case corporate cockup — potentially compounded by whatever loyal American forgot to change the batteries on the blowout preventer — is looking more by the hour like our environmental 9/11.

I know that's a risky comparison, because of all we lost that day, both in terms of lives and innocence. But as an economic and psychic blow, is the spill any less devastating to those living through it? Besides killing 11 oil workers, this slow-motion nightmare could murder the entire Gulf of Mexico and end a way of life for those who've made their living from it. Just as the local response to 9/11 was pure New York — tender but tough-minded, and Giuliani-esque as in "Let's go get the bastards" — the Cajun Catholicity of Louisiana's reply to the spill is undeniable: "When this boat sank [after Katrina] it rose up three days later,'' another shrimper, Charles Robin, told PD's Sandmel. "Now who else do we know of that rose after three days?"

One big difference, though, is that after we were attacked by foreign terrorists, Americans came together for a while. No matter what our politics, when President Bush draped his arm around a firefighter at Ground Zero we smiled appreciatively through our tears. Those who did this, the commander-in-chief vowed through that makeshift megaphone, would soon be hearing from all of us. Even those of us who shy away from war appreciated his war cry.

This time around, it would seem that a little demonizing of BP executives is in order, if not a few well-placed presidential threats. Is it because this was an industrial accident — or because our president during this calamity is so famously imperturbable? — that Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar was actually reprimanded by Obama for doing so.

Amid the devastation wrought by a foreign oil company — and our misplaced, often paid-for faith in self-regulation — the public is only marginally more interested in the environment than before. And though Obama didn't set up the lax regulatory system that allowed what Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts has rightly called a "crime against our country,'' we are disinclined to cut this president a break. (Does it matter that we haven't seen Obama huggin' on any shrimpers? Yes, I think it does.)

In the Rose Garden on Tuesday, the president announced that a special commission headed by former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and William K. Reilly, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency under George H.W. Bush, will investigate the cause of "the greatest environmental disaster of its kind in our history.'' To prevent such a thing from ever happening again, he said: "If the laws on our books are insufficient to prevent such a spill, the laws must change. If oversight was inadequate to enforce these laws, oversight has to be reformed. If our laws were broken, leading to this death and destruction, my solemn pledge is that we will bring those responsible to justice on behalf of the victims of this catastrophe and the people of the Gulf region.'' Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.'s trip to the Gulf on Tuesday suggested that criminal charges are a real possibility.

David Corn's latest PD column notes that on a practical, as opposed to political level, there is not much more the president could have done. Perhaps that's so; we'll never know for certain. But Obama's failure to bring us together at a time like this is significant nonetheless. We watch that oil spill live cam gushing and want to scream, "Make it stop!" BP continues to try remedies that not only sound crazy — stuffing golf balls and old tires down the hole, really? — but that threaten our faith in technology itself. Every minute that passes is a reproach and a proof of our impotence, and of our president's.

Just as difficult to accept has been Obama's reaction, which as widely noted has been too slow, too cool, and seemingly downright detached. It took him 12 days to show up, and 37 more to say: "This is my responsibility.'' After the Oklahoma City bombing 15 years ago, President Bill Clinton really was our "comforter in chief" — and at the other end of the emotional spectrum, had no trouble getting angry. You just know he would have ripped into BP execs, wagging his finger at them, all red-faced, and though it might have been theater, it would have been cathartic, too. Just as it was at Ground Zero, when someone in the crowd yelled that he couldn't hear George W. Bush, and our commander in chief answered, "I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."

After 16 years with those two, I thought I was ready for a president who was a little more understated and toned-down. But Obama is so cool that the guy who mimics him on Saturday Night Live seems less overdrawn all the time. A fan of empathy, our current president is not big on showing it. And when he recently called the ongoing assault "as enraging as it is heartbreaking" he didn't look enraged. My question: what does it take to get this guy mad?