here’s a tell-tale comment contained in news agency reports describing a nightclub blaze that killed at least 175 people on the night before New Year’s Eve in Buenos Aires. It is “too early,” say the reports, to assign blame for what occurred in the club. Those trapped by the fire could not do so through the main door because it was inexplicably locked. This created an unspeakable human pile-up; some patrons were burned alive, others breathed in only smoke and were crumpled.
Such extravagant circumstances, such revolting death, would be ample grist for global media had they not paled in comparison to the revelatory scale of events in South Asia.
Yet the key to understanding the different responses doesn’t lie in the death toll alone but in how fundamental blame is in the absorbing and rationalizing tragedy.
Blame is the only effective defense, or deflection, that advanced humanity possesses against the awful, whether it chooses to assign it to barbaric terrorists or forms of state dereliction.
Tear away that protective layer, as natural disaster invariably does, and mortality is robbed of intellectual extenuations. Bloated bodies are only bloated bodies, not victims available for rhetorical hectoring and scoreboard avenging. On a planet schooled in debate and argumentative reason these victims are unavailable to controversy, which is by itself troubling and helpless-making.
Such ambiguity terrifies the West, where science has made extraordinary inroads in canceling incidental mortality from the mundane and the commonplace — its coercive dwelling place for centuries and still its residence in vast areas of Asia and Africa.
Homicidal water and the coital transgressions of the volcanic Earth bewilder and bedevil the modern mind because no logically countervailing force exists to strike a balance. This accounts for numerous literary references in editorial texts that try to grasp the magnitude of Asia’s loss of life and devastation. Literature dabbles helpfully in infinity and chance, furnishing analgesic aphorisms. Shakespeare has been cited, so has Milton, the Bible, the Koran, and a litany of authors who belong mostly to proto-enlightened times when death — the centerpiece of life’s jagged mystery — demanded exegesis.
Not surprisingly, a Washington Post correspondent assigned to write a Letter from Phuket, which because of its tourist popularity bridges the gap between the modern and primordial, caught fiction’s bug: “You see it, you hear it, you take it in. You are here, but not here. It isn’t happening to you.”
A tsunami is not a war. An earthquake is not a nightclub. Water-savaged villages have not suffered bomb explosions set by men. There is no policy to contest. There is no over- or under-reaction to debate. There is no cynicism that permits an academic, educated escape. All that matters, as the Post correspondent noted, is that you, the reader or the watcher, are not among the dead.
This unusual reality —unusual because of the sheer numbers of the dead —exists well outside the norms of industrial society, and it is perhaps no accident and no irony that the gutted are mostly the poor.
The fact is insidiously useful, a neo-colonial rationale, in that the poor are by modern definition defenseless. They are smitten by traditions static in another time. True, there are thousand of sundered towns, but in them are illiterates bereft of science. Perhaps, had they been “us,” they might have known to look ahead, or to entertain vigilance. Perhaps, had their poor states been more “global,” and by definition less destitute, modern mechanisms might have been in place to circumvent the vulgarity of unexpected waves.
The modern West is not good with frailties with which it cannot identify. It turns away from that which it cannot contain. It blunders toward the vulnerability of others with disbelief and reluctance, even hidden disdain, which in part explains the time it took for some industrial nations to absorb the catastrophe and begin to promise extensive aid.
It’s rare when a sense of the modern cannot rein in events. It’s even more rare when science and reason collapse before the eyes of those loyal to social and political principles that can, ironically, oversee similar destruction in the name of those same principles.
The war in Iraq has no connection whatever to a natural disaster. But war, simplified and contextualized against it, can and does complicate ideas of collective humanity. How can the goals of redressing nature’s exaggerations co-exist rationally with the parallel goals of destroying an enemy, and with the enemy the lives many who are not the enemy? How can innocence and a sense of justice, in a post-Holocaust world of great intelligence, lament natural caprice while inflicting systematic destruction? How can one suffering stir such fine reserves of human kindness at the same time that another suffering, this one mandated and justified by reason, is keenly inflicted, at awful loss to all involved?
The depth of compassion recently directed to the victims of naturally-savaged South Asia responds at least in part to guilt regarding humanity’s failure to focus coherent and consistent empathy — Christian, Muslim or entirely agnostic — toward the inhabitants of a fragile world. Appalling acts committed by mankind, Westerners know, are every bit as cruel those produced by the Earth, and may in fact reflect an ugly embroidering of the Earth’s own ferocity.
There is no blame forthcoming for the astonishing waves in the Indian Ocean. There is no incriminating door, no one lax code. But there is enough survivor guilt, and fascination, to last at least a few months after the last Western camera crew pulls up its roots and slouches back to Baghdad, that man-made theater of chaos some can live with by citing a greater good, believing some devastation is to die for.