The tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people (according to the latest count) in southern Asia last month stirred what seemed like the whole gamut of emotions, from horror and pity through frustration to admiration and relief. At times, one felt a twinge of cynicism, as when some foreign governments attached a spider web of strings to an aid pledge even as it jostled to be crowned most generous. At other times, one felt almost elated, as reports trickled in of new amity between old foes, be they rebels and government troops shelving their weapons in Indonesia or former U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton getting together to lead a fundraising drive. Only outrage was missing. But that has begun to change.
In the beginning, the tsunami saga stood apart from the daily drumbeat of bad news — about war, genocide, suicide bombings, mine disasters and the like — by virtue of its innocence. For once there seemed to be literally no one to blame for death and destruction.
A few attempts were made to pinpoint a bad guy. There was talk, for instance, that more should have been done to put warning systems in place. But the absence of such mechanisms never became a scandal on the scale of the bureaucratic snafus that caused probably hundreds of needless deaths following the Kobe earthquake a decade ago. Instead, efforts to develop warning systems as speedily as possible have rightly taken precedence over recrimination for past inaction.
Even God was fingered as a scapegoat. Just as the Rev. Jerry Falwell saw the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as divine punishment for America’s godlessness, some self-appointed prophets have painted the tsunami’s devastation as God’s wrath against militancy, or the lack of militancy, or religious fanaticism, or religious indifference, or whatever failing it was they deplored in the nearest affected populace.
Of course, for every individual who believed in this vision of God’s vengefulness there was one who saw God’s hand working miracles. No one who read it will soon forget the story of the Sri Lankan fisherman who was saved from the giant waves, along with his whole family, because Dec. 26 was the day after a full moon and they were all attending prayers in their local temple — safely inland. Any other morning of the lunar cycle, he would have been far out at sea. The fisherman understandably attributed his survival to divine intervention. Still, on balance, it is hard to argue that God had any more of a hand in his fate, or in the disaster as a whole, than human beings did.
Human beings have had a big hand in the disaster’s aftermath, however, and while most stories have illustrated generosity, selflessness, courage and a general eagerness to assist victims in every way possible, a few have also shown that humanity has a hard time keeping its dark side hidden.
Early on, we glimpsed it in photographs of wealthy tourists sunbathing around hotel swimming pools in stricken Phuket, Thailand, drinks in hand, debris tastefully in the background, the day after the disaster. Even when local government officials pointed out that tourism was the lifeblood of such areas and the sooner it started flowing again the better, those images jarred.
It wasn’t just tourists or foreigners, either. Later, some of the victims produced their own jarring images. The old scenario of haves vs. have-nots apparently has many versions. It’s not always about rich and poor. Sometimes it’s about poor and poorer. But one thing can usually be relied on: The haves will behave worse than the have-nots.
Few stories were more heart-rending, or more repellent, than a U.S. newspaper’s report last week from a village in India, where fishing families left homeless by the tsunami had forced so-called untouchables, members of India’s lowest caste, out of a shelter and commandeered their relief supplies. One woman had a defense ready, though. The untouchables did not need the aid, she said. Their losses were small because they didn’t have much to begin with. Suddenly, the tsunami story no longer lacked for villains.
Finally, and perhaps most outrageous of all, has been an effort mounted in the past week or two by some of those human parasites who make a living preying on gullible Internet users in developed countries, including Japan. Usually, their semiliterate e-mailed pleas focus on obtaining bank account information so they can “deposit” millions of nonexistent dollars therein. Lately the ploy has been to solicit “donations” for earthquake survivors. Obviously, no survivor would ever see a penny of such a gift.
Saddest of all, perhaps, is the lurking reflection that maybe those countries that sent aid with strings attached were right, after all. It turns out that there are bad guys everywhere.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.