I was looking over the WSJ coverage of the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia. They had an article on blog opinions of the disaster, and one quote caught my eye:
On the Web site of the Poynter Institute, a journalism watchdog, Jill Geisler wonders how much time, money and effort the U.S. media will invest in covering a disaster that took place on the other side of the world. "Will this story get as much coverage as the Scott Peterson case?"
I've heard of Scott Peterson. That's because Dave Barry refered to the Scott Peterson case several times over the course of his "2004 in review" essay.
What I know about Scott Peterson is:
- He's some kind of celebrity. I don't actually know what sort. Movie star? Football player? Rap singer? Politician? Beats me. For all I know, what he's famous for it being involved in his namesake case.
- He was or is on trial. No, wait. Maybe someone else is on trial for commiting a crime against him. I guess I don't actually know which, because every reference I've seen to the Scott Peterson case has assumed that I already knew all about it.
- And ... no, wait. That's it. I have exhausted my entire supply of Scott-Peterson knowledge in two points.
It's not that I want to know. Neither Mr. Barry nor Ms. Geisler have given me reason to think I'm missing some important information on American society, or that the World is Depending on my having an informed opinion on the Scott Peterson Case. If I wanted to know, I would Google it and find out.
Instead, the feeling I have gotten from these references is that I (a) am living in a cave and (b) have achieved a magical, almost surreal state of ignorance for an American citizen. And having preserved my innocence this long, why not hang onto it a bit longer?
About the tsunami ...
On Monday, I suggested to one person at Toddler Bank that the bank should do some kind of fundraiser for the victims. Toddler bank raises money for a number of different causes throughout the year, and I thought, well, this is a good one.
Part of her response was: "Well, we do a lot of fundraisers already, and I don't want to pressure employees to give more than they already do. Besides, there's always a disaster happening somewhere in the world."
It's that last part that got to me: there's always a disaster happening somewhere in the world. Well, yes. There is. And we hear about them, in dribs and drabs: hundreds dying in this hurricane on a tropical island, thousands from a gas main explosion, millions of dollars in damage from wild fires.
But the death toll from the tsunamis had already reached 22,000 by Monday morning. (As of this writing: 117,000 and still rising.) The UN was already predicting this to be the costliest disaster ever.
And yet her response: "There's always a disaster somewhere". I suspect a lot of people have the same thought. They don't really distinguish between hearing about a hurricane that left thousands homeless in Florida and Grenada, and a series of tsunamis that has claimed over a hundred thousand lives, left millions homeless in nineteen different countries, and threatens countless more lives because the survivors have no potable water, and limited facilities and transportation. We can't wrap our minds around the enormity of it. Hundred or thousands, millions or billions, it's all just numbers to us. The scale of it eludes us. Why should I care about this one?
117,000 and rising.
Another thing that my mind keeps turning over is how simple natural disaster is. There are much worse tragedies in the world today than this one. An estimated 390,000 or more have perished in the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan; 35,000 more are dying every month. And we're doing nothing, really. Just like we did nothing in Rwanda, and nothing -- for almost a decade -- in Iraq. That last is a case in point of why we're doing nothing now. Because when we do act, we are torn to shreds by our own uncertainties. We may agree "We should do something!" But what?
The tsunami, though -- it's so much easier. No one is on the tsunami's side. No one is out there demonstrating for the rights of contaminated water to remain undrinkable. No one argues that we ought to give negotiation a chance to work on famine. No one insists that we need to send in the army to support the cause of disease.
There may be some dispute over the best ways to help, or whether or not environmental policies (or lack thereof) contributed to the scale of the disaster.
When I donate money to a relief organization for use in Southeast Asia, I don't need to wonder if I'm supporting the right side. I don't need to consider that these people I'm feeding and clothing may be terrorists, or that they might start killing the very relief workers trying to help them. When it comes to a natural disaster, I know who that bad guy is, and it's not human.
There's something queerly reassuring about that. Even if we are our own worst enemy, there are still other enemies out there that we can unite, as one species, to oppose.