Magazine article The New Yorker

FLOOD TIDE; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

FLOOD TIDE; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Article excerpt

Nearly four million men, women, and children have died as a consequence of the Congo civil war. Seventy thousand have perished in the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. In the year just ended, scores of thousands died in wars and massacres elsewhere in Africa, in Asia, in the archipelagoes of the Pacific, and, of course, in Iraq. Less dramatically, but just as lethally, two million people died of malaria around the world, and another million and a half of diarrhea. Five million children died of hunger. Three million people died of aids, mostly in Africa. The suffering of these untimely and terrible deaths--whether inflicted by deliberate violence, the result of human agency, or by avoidable or treatable malady, the result of human neglect--is multiplied by heartbroken parents and spouses, numbed and abandoned children, and, often, ruined survivors vulnerable to disease and predation and dependent, if they are lucky, on the spotty kindness of strangers.

The giant wave that radiated from western Sumatra on the day after Christmas destroyed the lives of at least a hundred and fifty thousand people and the livelihoods of millions more. A hundred and fifty thousand: fifty times the toll of 9/11, but "only" a few per cent of that of the year's slower, more diffuse horrors. The routine disasters of war and pestilence do, of course, call forth a measure of relief from public and private agencies (and to note that this relief is almost always inadequate is merely to highlight the dedication of those who deliver it). But the great tsunami has struck a deeper chord of sympathy.

One can understand why. Partly it's that although the scale of the horror is unimaginable (or so it has been repeatedly described), the horror itself is all too imaginable. A giant wave speaks to a childlike fear that can be apprehended by anyone who has ventured too far out from the beach in a suddenly mounting swell, has felt helpless in the suck of undertow or riptide, has been slammed and spun and choked by a breaker tall enough to block the sky. Partly it's that the reach of the disaster was so vast, far vaster than any hurricane or monsoon or terrestrial earthquake: three thousand miles from end to end. Partly it's that people from all over the world, seeking a holiday in the sun, witnessed the catastrophe. People from more than fifty countries lost their lives in it; among the dead and missing, nearly two weeks later, were more than seven thousand foreign tourists. (Nearly two thousand of them were Swedes; if that number holds, then Sweden's immediate losses, proportionately, will be greater than Thailand's.) Finally, and perhaps most important, it's that this is a drama that has victims and heroes--but no villains. No human ones, anyway.

The terrible arbitrariness of the disaster has troubled clergymen of many persuasions. The Archbishop of Canterbury is among those newly struggling with the old question of how a just and loving God could permit, let alone will, such an undeserved horror. (Of course, there are also preachers, thankfully few, who hold that the horror is not only humanly deserved but divinely intended, on account of this or that sin or depredation.) The tsunami, like the city-size asteroid that, on September 29th, missed the earth by only four times the distance of the moon, is a reminder that, one way or another, this is the way the world ends. Man's laws are proscriptive, nature's merely descriptive.

Yet it is the very "meaninglessness" of the catastrophe--its lack of human agency, its failure to fit into any scheme of human reward and punishment--that has helped make possible the simple solidarity of the global response. …

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