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Does It Take a Disaster for Us to Care?

The images coming out of Haiti are unimaginably grim, and as the clock continues to tick while rescue efforts become mired in bureaucracy, the death toll is sure to rise. Still, as is often the case in times of epic tragedy, Americans express their grief and demonstrate their largesse in myriad meaningful ways. The sincerity of these gestures is obvious, but the question persists: Why does it take a high-magnitude disaster for us to really care?

Consider that in the case of Haiti, people essentially were living in a state of "permanent disaster" for decades with almost no expression of concern from our shores. Hemispheric policies of creating corrupt puppet regimes, ousting popularly elected officials, arming paramilitaries, and imposing "law and order" on disenfranchised people have existed in Haiti and throughout the region without cessation or even much official denial. Economically speaking, so-called "free trade" has served to flood markets with subsidized U.S. goods, drive people from their land tenure to poorly-built urban shantytowns, cause crushing poverty and despair, and undercut whatever minimal public infrastructure had existed.

This was the state of affairs for most Haitians before the earthquake hit. With 80% living in poverty and with no real prospects for improvement, the people survived as best they could, demonstrating remarkable dignity and resiliency in the process. But the recent "natural disaster" -- much as happened here when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans -- exposed the thin veneer of baseline vulnerability in which the people had tenuously been existing. Inadequate structures, both social and architectural, crumble in the face of nature's force. In this sense, the disaster was surely man-made as much as it was natural, and to some extent we must acknowledge that it was partly "made in the USA" as well.

Haitian lore may indeed suggest that a "deal with the devil" was struck to gain their freedom from under the heel of enslavement, but it couldn't save them from the brute force of our foreign policies. Haitians largely have been persona non grata on these shores, effectively remaining landlocked to cope with conditions sufficient for strong claims of refugee status. Given their proximity to the U.S., it is clear that a "stable" kleptocracy with millions living in squalor has been politically preferable to an unpredictable populism in which post-colonial peoples feel empowered to define the conditions of their own lives. Despite Haiti being the first slave state to win its independence, their subjugation didn't end -- it just changed form.

This is a cultural "teachable moment," as they say in higher education. If we open our hearts and wallets in this critical time, but then fail to alter "business as usual" once the crisis passes and the news cycle moves on, we'll simply be deferring disaster again until the next "big one" hits. Having done relief work in migrant communities following Hurricane Andrew, and then again in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast following Katrina, I have no doubt whatsoever that Americans are generous and caring people filled with sincere compassion. Yet I also wonder whether such episodes touch a place of unspoken and perhaps even unrecognized guilt as well. On some level, we must know that our collective comfort is partially paid for with the impoverishment of others.

Much has been said and written in recent days about the desperation and plight of the Haitian people. In this time, we should do everything in our power to contribute resources to genuine relief organizations that actually serve people and communities. We should support Haitians living here in the U.S. in their quest to locate family and friends, and to deal with the emotional consequences of the catastrophe. We should offer prayers, empathy, and comfort on every level that we are able. We should, in essence, apply the basic premise of the golden rule and consider what we would most need and desire if our lives were suddenly buried in the rubble.

Most importantly, we cannot lose sight of the plight and become blithely reabsorbed into our everyday lives in short order. New Orleans is still an open wound in America's psyche, and the displaced people there -- both internally and externally -- have not been able to truly find solace and peace in their lives. The best form of disaster relief we can provide is preventive, namely demanding a course correction in our national policies that allow people to exist in states of maximum vulnerability and perpetual neglect. Rather than simply reacting as disasters befall, we can alleviate them through proactive policies that uplift people everywhere by exporting a genuine ethos of health, opportunity, and democracy rather than exploitation and immiseration.

We can help the people of Haiti by likewise demanding these virtues and values for ourselves. Notwithstanding certain disequilibria of geography and economy, we all share a common humanity that is increasingly becoming interlinked both technologically and environmentally. Let us express this during times of acute crisis, and also during times in which crises exist below the radar of our cultural consciousness. This type of ongoing relief in which we strive for justice and equity on a daily basis will show the true spirit that lies at the core of who we are, as we work simultaneously to remediate this disaster and mitigate the next ones before they emerge. Perhaps, in the end, it is this sort of pact with each other that will lead to our mutual salvation.

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Randall Amster

Randall Amster

Randall Amster, JD, PhD, is Director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University. His books include Peace Ecology (Routledge, 2015), Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012), Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB, 2008); and the co-edited volume Exploring the Power of Nonviolence: Peace, Politics, and Practice (Syracuse University Press, 2013).

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