Sunday, January 02, 2005

Gerard Baker: Tsunami must be fault of the US

This From The Australian

INEVITABLY, confronted with a tragedy of unimaginable scale, the human mind looks for someone to blame. In the Dark Ages, disasters were ascribed to the wrath of God. Now, in an odd inversion that we like to think of as progress, they are adduced as evidence of no God.

In the absence of a deity to decry or appease when the earth moves in such devastating fashion, humankind reaches for the next best thing - worldly authority. Authority should have known it was coming. Authority didn't do enough to prevent it. Authority was too preoccupied with its own nefarious priorities to care.

There is plenty of authority to blame for the devastation caused by the Sumatran earthquake this week. Governments in Bangkok, Jakarta and Colombo will shoulder some of it. Governments farther afield will be inculpated for the poverty of their response. Media organisations will be attacked for being too callous and too mawkish. Unsurprisingly, perhaps the most inviting target is the US.

In the past three days I have been impressed by the originality of the latest critiques of the evil Americans. The earthquake and tsunami apparently had something to do with global warming, environmentalists say, caused of course by greedy American motorists. Then there was the rumour that the US military base at Diego Garcia was forewarned of the impending disaster and presumably because of some CIA-approved plot to undermine Islamic movements in Indonesia and Thailand did nothing about it.

To be fair, even the most animated America-hater, though, baulks at the idea of blaming George W. Bush for the destruction and death in southern Asia. But the US is blamed for not responding generously enough to help the victims of the catastrophe. A UN official this week derided Washington's contribution as stingy.

It is a label that fits the general image abroad of greedy, self-absorbed Americans. They neither know nor care much about the woes of the rest of the world, do they? Did the tsunami even get a look-in on US TV news between the holiday schmalz and the football games, I have been sneeringly asked once or twice this week by contemptuous British friends.

The answer is yes, it did. News coverage of the event has been extensive, and for the most part intelligent and mercifully free of the sort of parochialism about holidaymakers that characterises so much of the European press accounts. There have been some lapses -- the New York newspaper that carried on its front page the Manhattan supermodel's harrowing tale of survival as her boyfriend was swept away by a tidal wave. There has perhaps been a little too much "what if it happened here?" alarmist self-absorption.

But for the most part Americans have watched a sobering, heartbreaking tale of unimagined calamity unfold halfway across the world. You get a sense of the heterogeneity of this country when something such as this happens. Every newspaper in every big city has been carrying stories about local Sri Lankan, Indonesian, Thai and Malaysian communities traumatised by the long-distance search for relatives and friends.

Further, in financial terms, it is not at all clear that the US is shirking its responsibilities, pledging an initial $US35 million ($45.1million) in aid, with the prospect of much more to come, and offering military assistance. You can be sure that the private US response will be even more impressive. Don't misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that Americans are any more generous than anyone else -- simply that they, too, are moved to mercy by the plight of others.

But even as we seek to apportion blame when catastrophe strikes, we are gripped too by a kind of fatalism. We stand in awe of nature and feel helpless before its apparently insuperable power. The rising death toll in Southeast Asia seems to mock our pretensions to progress. We may have been to the moon, eradicated smallpox and created eBay, we think, but when the tectonic plates move we are no more secure than were the barefoot citizens of Pompeii.

Yet the truth is not so grim. For centuries, steady progress has been made in the struggle to limit the effects of natural disasters. Last year, an earthquake that measured 6.6 on the Richter scale killed more than 40,000 people in the Iranian city of Bam. In 1989, a more powerful earthquake struck outside San Francisco. The death toll was fewer than 100. Of course there were demographic and geologic differences that contributed to the disparity. Of course there will never be a fail-safe protection against the most destructive efforts of nature. But it is within our reach to build systems that can mitigate their effects.

Years of scientific effort and technological investment have given the world seismic sensors; early warning systems; buildings that can bounce up and down on stilts buried deep in the earth; flood barriers and other techniques. We can discern the outlines of a strategy for preventing, or at least limiting future disasters.

As we contemplate nature's fearful capacity for destruction and our apparent helplessness, we should not forget the greater tragedy that is humankind's potential for self-destruction. It was humanity, not nature, that killed tens of millions in the wars and genocides of the 20th century. Even as we master techniques to protect us from the earth's violence, we perfect new, more effective means of delivering our own.

The Times

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