RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Last week with the rest of America, I watched these images of destruction and desperation from Mississippi and Louisiana, and the phrase that kept coming to me was "the third world." The third world.
Before last week, I hated the colonial hauteur of that expression. The South African township is located in the third world, we say, meaning that it is located on another planet by comparison to us. The Cambodian villages in the third world, we say. Even the Mexican border town slum is in the third world, though otherwise so near. Last week the third world came to America-- or, better, America discovered itself to belong to the nations of the third world.
The week began with the mayor of New Orleans telling citizens to get out of town. A Category 5 hurricane was headed toward the city, and would surely compromise its levees. What became quickly clear in the days after was how many thousands, how vast a city within a city, the people there are in New Orleans, as in any other American city-- people who do not have a car to get out of town, or a credit card for gas, or a destination, or the health or the youth to pick up and leave.
It is insufficient to say that the first world population got out of town and left New Orleans to become a third world capital, flooded and stinking and dangerous. It is truer to say we discovered that New Orleans, like any other city, had been in the third world all along. These faces of terror and want and despair and menace and stoicism are faces from the third world. They are American faces.
When the great wave levels a village in Thailand or a small town in Mississippi, there is tragedy aplenty. But there is some special horror to watching the collapse of a city like New Orleans. A city is a complex, breathing edifice. The city represents civilization itself, the compromises and agreements of many different lives, side by side. The city represents a nation's achievement of civic order. Within that civic order, there are certain assurances. If I flick the wall switch, the light will go on. If I turn the faucet, there will be water to drink or to bathe. If I pick up the phone, there will be a dial tone. If I punch 9-1-1, an ambulance will come, or the police.
Hours passed, and the city flooded. There were dark nights, hot days. Where were the police? Where was FEMA? Where was the cavalry? In the rest of America, the price of gasoline began to ascend.
In New Orleans, the old sat for days by the side of the road, waiting for a bottle of water, and dangerous young men roamed the city, as they do in the third world.
Toward the end of the week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced National Preparedness Month to encourage Americans to prepare for emergencies. It was clear that the various levels of government had not been prepared, and who could say now what America would look like in an emergency in which there were three or four New Orleans?
What we had seen, 24/7 on the cable news channels, was unmistakable. The third world is here.
I'm Richard Rodriguez.