January 9th, 2005

Baby and me

One Other Thing (Or Two)

It's been two weeks now since the tsunami that killed a couple of hundred thousand people around the Indian Ocean. (How easily that number rolls from the fingertips! The human ability to abstract can be a remarkable thing.)

I've heard and read a number of people wondering - sometimes in sorrow, more often with anger - since those Boxing Day waves swept away so many lives, why the response of individuals in rich countries like Canada has been so generous.

Why, they wonder, do we not open our wallets, petition our governments, organize NGOs, to deal with other, slower, human catastrophes? Why is there not a similar outpouring of concern to, say, the 200,000 African children who die of preventable disease every couple of weeks? Why not for the victims of the in Iraq, or for the forgotten wars in Indonesia, Chechnya or Afghanistan?

The usual, rhetorical, answer seems to be to blame the media - and by extension, ourselves - for a short attention-span. And I think there is some truth to that.

But a more important factor, I think, is the sheer simplicity of the tsunami and the fact that it was "an act of God". Initially, at least, the complexities of politics can be ignored: a huge mother-fucking wave wiped out a whole lot of people and left the survivors with devastated villages, polluted water and wrecked fishing boats. Like the victims of a car accident at the side of the road, they need help and they need it now.

Disasters that result from human actions, as opposed to acts of God, are not so easy to figure out. If one's concern is directed to Iraqis, say, to whom would one send money? If your politics resemble mine, any US charity is out, because they would most likely be co-operating with the invaders; the rebels are out, because most of those groups are not, in fact, made up of the sort of people I'd want to have in my home; most truly independent NGOs are out because they have either decided they can't work there because to do so would require cooperating with the invaders or because the rebels have driven them out.

Yes, the reaction to the tsunami was driven by the photos and videos that came - so quickly! - to our television screens, but it was also driven by the knowledge that - for once! - there was a clear way in which we could actually do something and know that we had done so. When people need clean water and their government is incapable of providing it, the answer is simple - get them water!

I'd like to think the generous impulse behind those donations will lead to more sophisticated political responses to other crises around the world, but I won't hope too hard. Nevertheless, a lot of people around the world have been reminded that all of us share this planet and that can't but be a good thing.

Finally, I'd like to thank ellie_elephant for providing me (and her other readers) with some very good first-person accounts of the situation. She has balanced journal-writing with journalism, fact with opinion, in an excellent way.

And that's it. I've been at this computer too long today.