One tsunami a day

Thursday, January 6th, 2005

Those 30-foot waves of Dec. 26, moving at jetliner speed, slammed into our priorities as well as untold huts and villas. This is 9/11 times 50. The whole planet has reverberated. But as we rebuild, how much can we expect ourselves to change?

The worst story following in the wake of the tsunami that killed 150,000 people in 11 countries concerns the government of Indonesia, which shamelessly put strategic goals above humanitarian concerns.

Our stalwart ally not only continued its bloody, high-casualty war against separatists in Aceh Province, where at least 80,000 people just died, but took advantage of the chaos to give its military prospects a boost — in the process, actually curtailing U.N., Red Cross and other disaster relief from reaching the starving, vulnerable survivors who need help the most.

Meanwhile, in Thailand, word is out that meteorologists there, on learning of the 9.0 quake in the Indian Ocean, failed to issue a tsunami warning for fear of hurting the country’s tourist industry, which was in peak season. With hotel rooms nearly 100 percent full, no one in Thailand’s Meteorological Department wanted to take the responsibility of calling for an evacuation and risk the wrath of inconvenienced vacationers — and their own government — if the big wave didn’t come.

Around the world, national leaders played “compassion chicken,” shaming one another into upping their assistance antes. They ultimately coughed up $2 billion in pledged aid — not bad, maybe, though it’s what the U.S. alone spends every two weeks on its war with Iraq.

Something here feels tawdry to me. The priorities feel wrong — shallow, shabby — at the level of humanity’s highest organizational structures, the world’s nation states. Yet I have this strange predilection to be an optimist. I sift through the details of this disaster and look for hope. If I had a photograph of it, I could post it with the others, the ones put up by desperate survivors looking for lost loved ones: Have you seen . . . ?

“I’d much rather be doing this than fighting a war,” said an American helicopter pilot as he helped transport survivors to the Banda Aceh hospital. Maybe this is what hope looks like.

Sandra Bullock donated $1 million.

Hope looks like ordinary people, not like governments. Though maybe even this is suspect.

The world’s compassion “only flows freely when directed at nonpolitical suffering,” write Jan Oberg, Gudrun Schyman and Christina Spannar of the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research. “If related to economy and to politics, it doesn’t. . . . Worldwide, between 60,000 and 100,000 people die every day because of poverty, curable diseases, AIDS, lack of food, clean water, shelter, clothes, medicine and education.”

That’s “one tsunami a day, the year around,” they write, “and few care.”

I plead guilty. One tsunami a century is too much to cope with. The authors quoted above come to the conclusion that natural disasters break open the human heart and make us reach out to those in need because the cause of their need is so clearly disconnected from our daily lives. The dull, everyday disasters of political and economic origin fail to do so “probably because we know, deep down, that they die because of us.”

One tsunami a day.

This fact is bigger even than the stupidity of the powerful. It requires anger, but first it demands introspection. This is the burden I feel, as I struggle for an appropriate personal response to the tsunami: to give something, to help, but also to learn. Tapping my cash reserves doesn’t feel like quite enough. What is my commitment to a humane world?

When I ask myself this while reflecting on the suddenly dead of Dec. 26 — the children whose bodies were stacked in fish crates, the corpses in trees, the Hindu pilgrims taking their ritual sea bath, the son of a king killed on his jet-ski — I’m left with a sense of unbearable urgency. There’s another tsunami coming tomorrow.