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Letter From Ground Zero: Something Strange

As I followed the initial coverage of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, I was reminded of a time in the early 1980s when I spent some months researching the effects of a nuclear war-- the thermal pulses from the detonations, the bursts of radiation, the blast waves spreading out from ground zero, the immediate local fallout and the delayed stratospheric fallout. Of course, my research was into a merely possible event--humanity's only actual experience of nuclear blasts having been the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki--whereas the news from the Indian Ocean was actual.

Still, the similarities were striking. As would happen in a nuclear war, villages and small cities were scoured from the face of the earth. "Before" and "after" satellite photographs showed the erasure even of geographic features of the landscape. Islands sank. New harbors formed. Towns were lakes. Like photographs of bombing damage, the before photos showed the fine articulation of human cultivation and dwelling--in this case, a salad of greenery laced with lines of red tile roofs and roads--and the after pictures were a smear of browns. As in nuclear war, the sweep of destruction was immense, involving a dozen countries, some as far away as East Africa. As in nuclear war, the ground was carpeted with corpses. Like the fires set by nuclear war, the flooding waters tore friends and families apart, leaving some to die while others saved themselves. As in nuclear war, it was not just immense numbers of individual lives that had been swept away; it was also the support systems of human life--transportation, fresh water, power, medical services. And so many of the injured who might otherwise have survived could not be cared for, and died. As in nuclear war, the many tales of individual survival both brought the experience to life and yet at the same time seemed to falsify it. For at its heart were the tens of thousands who had perished and could tell nothing.

Yet while a nuclear war would be man-made, the tsunami was nature's work. "There is something strange happening with the sea," someone called out to Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs, who was vacationing in Sri Lanka and saw the sea suddenly rise. Just as strange, it then withdrew with a sucking sound, leaving a wide stretch of the seabed bare, the fish gasping. And then it rushed back in again. A man in Indonesia said, "The water separated, and then it attacked." A Kenyan man said, "It was like seeing the sun setting in the east. The tide was crazy. The water wasn't following the rules." Something strange happened with the land, too, when the earthquake that caused the tsunami struck. And soon even the sky seemed to be acting strange. "It was like Armageddon," said Zukarnaen Buyung, a Sumatran construction worker. "We didn't know it was a wave. We thought it was some kind of rain. Everything behind us was black. The sky, the water." All of nature--water, land and sky--was breaking the rules, and attacking.

Few disasters have come as greater surprises than this one, and part of that surprise was its origin in nature rather than man. Perhaps that's one reason George W. Bush and Tony Blair, shuttered in the closed universe of the man-made "war" on man-made terror, were so slow to awaken to the dimensions of the catastrophe. (Both leaders remained on vacation for more than a week after the event.) They seemed unable to conceive of a tragedy that was both irrelevant to their crusade and hugely exceeded it in scale and human importance. But in truth, most people around the world seemed disoriented by nature's shock. The human capacity for mass destruction has been so highly developed in our time that we seem, without quite realizing it, almost to have claimed title to the art, as if to say, "Wait, how can nature do this? Isn't killing hundreds of thousands of people our business?"

Certainly, the response was slow, both locally and internationally. The original American offer of $15 million was a disgrace to the country. Even to mention such a figure in the face of such suffering was a mockery. The word "stingy," used by UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland, is one of the kindest that might be applied. Of course, as Egeland soon pointed out, he had not explicitly singled out the US response to the tsunami for criticism; he had spoken more generally of the miserly contributions in recent years from all rich nations--which nowhere reach even 1 percent of GDP--to international humanitarian aid. (In this company, the United States is a veritable Scrooge, giving about 0.15 percent of GDP.) But coming the same day as Bush's $15 million commitment (a third of the sum that a businessman has just paid to buy a large house in Wainscott, Long Island, and less than last year's year-end bonus for the president of Goldman Sachs), it was inevitable that the criticism would be taken as it was. The US commitment has now risen to a more respectable $350 million and is likely to rise further. Misinterpretations don't usually lead to good results, yet this one has.

But the literal meaning of Egeland's criticism was as important a message as the salutary misreading. In his exact words, "We were more generous when we were less rich, many of the rich countries, and it is beyond me why we are so stingy, really.... Even Christmastime should remind many Western countries, at least, how rich we have become." He was referring to the historical fact that in the past few decades the richer the rich have become, the less they have given in aid. Why, we might ask, is there, alongside armed forces in almost every country, no established international rescue army--no well-funded international force fully equipped with emergency gear ready to give prompt aid in any large-scale catastrophe? Initial funding might be $100 billion--a mere 10 percent of the trillion or so the world spends annually on arms. Why, when human need is the greatest, should the human response always be left to improvisation? There is no reason to think that nature had any lesson in mind, whether about the world's bloated, multiplying nuclear arsenals or anything else, when it shoved one tectonic plate beneath another, causing the earthquake that caused the tsunami. But we are free to draw a lesson: Leave mass destruction to nature. Our job should be to protect and preserve life.

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Jonathan Schell

Jonathan Schell

Jonathan Schell was the peace and disarmament correspondent for the Nation magazine and a Senior Lecturer at Yale University. Among many other works, he was the author of The Real War, The Fate of the Earth, and The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People.  He died on March 25, 2014.


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