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Finding succor in tragedy

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WASHINGTON — It is said that even the darkest cloud has a silver lining. So what positives could possibly be connected with the sorrowful destruction from Sumatra’s tsunami? The catastrophe has shown us several things:

First, we all are vulnerable, be it because of our fixed location or because we go to places. In today’s interlinked world, location is no longer an exposure that is the result of our birth; it is also the consequence of choice. This choice, which gives us more freedom of mobility than ever before, however, also exposes us to the consequences of our selections, which place us at the same ground zero as local populations.

Second, we are linked, even across vast distances, to outcomes both good and bad. Would popular thinking have expected natural disaster in Indonesia to also affect more than 10 other countries and visitors from dozens beyond? For many forms of danger, geographic distance is no longer a barrier that insulates us from the consequences of dangerous occurrences.

Third, there are important areas where we need to collaborate and where government involvement is good. In economics, the traditional textbook example has been the building of a lighthouse: Private interests might not have sufficient incentives to make the necessary investment for it, but there is a public need to make shipping safer for all.

Perhaps the example had become too dated over time; after all, who sails nowadays at night without a Global Positioning System? But the tsunami case demonstrates that the powerful forces of nature still are in charge. The example may have changed, but the need for massive international collaboration to effectively address major overarching problems has not.

Fourth, perhaps the timing and the profundity of the disaster have given us some occasion for reflection, leading to a new appreciation of the perishability of our surroundings. In the past decades we have become virtually impervious to danger — even to close personal calls. We are too much in a hurry to worry about our own lives, let alone those of others.

Here is just one example. The other day my wife opened her car door and stepped out while waving to me standing on the other side of the street. In doing so, she was nearly run over by a huge bus, which avoided her by an inch after turning very sharply.

Imagine if this had happened in days gone by in my old home in Bavaria with, say, a loose team of horses. Back then, our ancestors would surely have built a small roadside shrine devoted either to the Virgin Mary or some saint as an expression of gratitude for the miraculous rescue. For generations to come, their descendants would have gone there on the day of remembrance with renewed thanks.

What happened in our case? Well, we took a deep breath, went into a Starbucks and had a latte. Not callous, but busy! Perhaps this calamity will make us all a bit more pensive and more gratefully possessive of what we have.

The tsunami also shows us that there is a much stronger sense of world community than many have us believe. Although pundits keep predicting how we grow apart and become isolated, the outpouring of support, and aid now flowing into devastated regions is not just from governments, but from individuals who feel connected. The condolence books of embassies are filling up with comments from individuals who want to share their feelings.

It is in times like these that we are reminded why our noble forefathers founded traditional international organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations — to help, support and improve the world.

At the same time, we can see how, in an era of globalization, new icons of capitalism such as “amazon.com” and “ebay.com” are trusted and efficient collectors of funds for the needy.

President George W. Bush could round out this support by greatly downscaling the festivities planned Jan. 20 for the inauguration of his second term in office. In keeping with the themes of gratitude, humility and U.S. empathy for sudden devastation, he might suggest that the funds saved be used for the victims of the disaster, a move to be joined by political supporters and opponents alike.

It may seem unnecessary to cut back on national celebrations after the glamorous New Year festivities in Paris and Berlin, but such a step would go a long way to demonstrate that the United States intends to lead by example. What better way to demonstrate how we all are part of the world and at the same time to tangibly celebrate the beginning of a new epoch.

So yes, the disaster is tragic and will remain unforgettable. But if it wakens some new thoughts and approaches to collaboration between nations and people, then there may be a silver lining after all.