Apocalypse, now?

What Sandy tells us about government

A soldier looks out form his military vehicle during the landfall of Hurricane Sandy in lower manhattan on Oct. 29.
(Image credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

It turns out that apocalyptic fantasies aren't limited to Hollywood, or to the actual apocalypse or the top secret continuity of government exercises that the federal government likes to hold. The reason why they capture our imagination is that the best of them are uncannily close to reality. Even in the 21st century, in the most powerful country the universe has ever known, layers of civilization are very fragile.

And human beings are incredibly resilient. Even Americans! Those of us who are privileged to enjoy the comfort of a couch now must be able to evacuate our homes with no notice, have money secured on our person with no notice, seek emergency shelter without direction, provide for ourselves 72 hours of food and water without electricity, restaurants, or stores. We can do this. We can be lazy Americans and incredibly resilient Americans. We can live without luxury or running water for a week, or power for two weeks, and then go back to our lives as soon as civilization is restored. This does a few things. It gives us a better appreciation for those who live in, say, the favelas of Brazil or the slums near garbage dumps in Managua. A little more empathy is good. There is a limiting condition, though. It is that we have strong, central, state, and federal governments who have built into the fiscal calendar a capacity to keep capital flowing after disasters. Those same governments are able to mobilize tens of thousands of people whose job it is to keep us from permanently living in a way that barely does justice to human dignity. As much as we can rely on the private sector to restock our refrigerator, oil wouldn't get to trucks, trucks wouldn't get to cold food, cold food wouldn't get to well-built, still-standing supermarkets with employees who are healthy and independent enough to work, none of this would happen without the competent administration of government.

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Marc Ambinder

Marc Ambinder is TheWeek.com's editor-at-large. He is the author, with D.B. Grady, of The Command and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Marc is also a contributing editor for The Atlantic and GQ. Formerly, he served as White House correspondent for National Journal, chief political consultant for CBS News, and politics editor at The Atlantic. Marc is a 2001 graduate of Harvard. He is married to Michael Park, a corporate strategy consultant, and lives in Los Angeles.