Tue | Nov 24, 2020

Brian-Paul Welsh | The perfect storm

Published:Monday | September 11, 2017 | 12:00 AM

September 11, 2001 is a date that has been seared into the memories of millions of people old enough to have experienced the series of events that unfolded in the United States of America on that day.

By then, the World Wide Web of information had reached even poor countries like ours and many could watch in real time as thousands of people lived the horror of an unexpected catastrophe in New York City, the cultural and economic hub of the USA.

Even as a cynical teenager who thought I had seen it all, waking up to witness a commercial airplane crash into a building in downtown Manhattan while the rest of the world watched on CNN live along with me was a surreal and life-altering experience.

Having spent my short lifetime regularly dazzled by the spectacles of Hollywood blockbuster movies, big explosions and car chases, it wasn't immediately easy to discern fact from fiction, especially as each moment of this rapid bombardment of events was broadcast in living colour the moment they were happening.

It didn't seem plausible in the United States of America of the 21st century that something of this magnitude could take place with such seeming ease, and worst of all by surprise. That unprecedented day of terror, paranoia, and fear marked the beginning of a new era of global culture as the world watched the polestar of modern civilisation struggle to maintain a galvanised front after being exposed as vulnerable and unprepared, with its commander-in-chief apparently dismally ill-equipped to provide leadership in a time of immense panic.

Four years later in 2005, New Orleans, another iconic American city, was inundated by floods after the unparalleled force of Hurricane Katrina breached man-made levees that previously protected the unique settlement from ocean tides. This unanticipated natural disaster suddenly eroded all illusions of civility, breaking down the First-World mirage, and we saw with our own eyes how quickly so-called civilisation can devolve to its primal core.


Waters subsided


The waters have since subsided, but the flood of horrifying memories hasd been imprinted on our collective psyche, ready to be evoked at news of the next pending disaster. The dearth of leadership demonstrated in this cataclysm and the one that preceded it has not been forgotten, and lingering resentment for the callous state remains, especially with a new and equally inept captain at the helm of the ship.

Sixteen years after the World Trade Center collapsed on live television, the main tower has been rebuilt, taller than ever, as a symbol of the immortality of the republic, while Mardi Gras has been revived to some of its former glory bringing fun, frolic and revelry to a city in need of new life. At the same time, another storm has ruptured sea walls in Florida, dark clouds disrupting the tranquillity of the Sunshine State, once more exposing helplessness and vulnerability in the land of the free.

The integrity of the nation concept of the USA is again being challenged as it grapples with multiple disasters all at once, ranging from massive forest fires, unprecedented flooding, and a record-shattering hurricane, all testing the mettle of a country that has forever prided itself on its resilience and ability to triumph even in the midst of strife.

The symbol of its perseverance, the Star-spangled Banner, waves defiantly in moments of doubt as a beacon of hope for a brighter tomorrow and a representation of the greatness upon which that mighty nation was founded.

Now as that flag flails desperately in the wind, battered by forces beyond its control that have devastated other countries as part of this region's natural cycle of violence, we are faced once more with the illusory nature of civilisation and the vulnerability of nationhood even for those who seek to lead by example.

'When man a plan, God a wipe' is a Jamaican colloquial expression used to convey the insignificance of man's best laid tactics in light of superseding circumstances beyond his control.

In our tempestuous relationship with the natural world and with recent events calling into question the basis of man's proclaimed mastery over his domain, it seems even the mightiest of nations with the most resources at their disposal must yield to the transcendent power of nature over which there is ultimately no control.

Many accepted this unsettling reality as they hunkered in shelters contemplating what they would see should they emerge, and whether the displacement and devastation encountered by us simple island folk would be their new alternative reality.

As we all have seen over this past week of uncertainty, nature is no respecter of status, and under the right circumstances, the perfect storm of conditions, even the biggest tree will fall.

- Brian-Paul Welsh is a writer and public affairs commentator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and brianpaul.welsh@gmail.com, or @islandycynic on social media.