In 1985, a powerful earthquake leveled hundreds of buildings in Mexico City and left thousands dead or trapped under the rubble. The government’s only response was to deny there was a problem. Mexicans, long accustomed to all aspects of public life being dominated by an authoritarian one-party state, took matters into their own hands and organized on a neighborhood level to rescue the missing and restore basic services. They also began to relentlessly hound previously unaccountable government officials to do their jobs. The challenge to business as usual didn’t end there. The government had lost its legitimacy, and a pro-democracy movement emerged that over the next 15 years would ultimately help end one-party rule in Mexico.

It’s too soon to say how the public will respond to the Bush Administration’s handling of this obscene tragedy. Critics will continue to heap scorn on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its departed chief Michael Brown. Congressional inquiries will be held and reports will be solemnly issued. The Democrats will make a few timid, carefully calibrated criticisms. None of this matters. What matters is that despite paying taxes to a government that spends more than half a trillion dollars per year on “national security,” a great city has been lost due to pure folly while ever more blood and treasure is poured into a doomed and ignoble war in Iraq.

The media is back in full normalization mode. But it’s hard to believe that any but the most rabid partisans can listen again to Bush’s canned speeches and feel he is sincere and has the best interest of people at heart. The callousness of this administration and the system it is a product of stands exposed naked before us. Now what?